Law360 (September 23, 2020, 10:53 PM EDT) -- A former University of Pittsburgh dental school professor told a federal judge during a bench trial Wednesday she was fired as a result of ethnic bias after a colleague misconstrued her remark about having "killed" during the Croatian conflict as a threat.
Dr. Snjezana Bagic, a former team leader at the dental school, said her April 2016 ouster arose from her Croatian nationality. Bagic was terminated shortly after an altercation in which she was angry at a colleague who took one of her team members on a day they were short-staffed. According to testimony, Bagic responded to his comment that she "looked like she could kill" with a declaration that she had killed during the war in Croatia in the early 1990s.
The colleague, Sean Noonan, said Bagic followed this declaration with an explicit threat that she would kill him if he ever again committed the same offense. Bagic strongly denies this assertion.
Noonan had learned of Bagic's nationality and war service socially and "grabbed on to that and reported that to the police and used that as the basis to discriminate against Dr. Bagic," Bagic's lawyer, John Corcoran, told a federal judge in closing arguments Wednesday via Zoom.
Despite multiple university employees' testimony Wednesday that their investigations into the incident did not touch on Bagic's nationality, Corcoran said it wasn't credible that Noonan would have stopped at telling only the police about Bagic's nationality. He made a police report 48 hours after the incident, and days after that Bagic was terminated.
According to Corcoran, Bagic's termination was eventually expunged from university records after Noonan's testimony was found to be unreliable by the university.
Andrew Marcus, a lawyer for the university, told the judge Wednesday that Noonan's account was amply backed up by university management.
"You cannot threaten to kill one of your coworkers. Now, the university does not have the burden to show that's what happened here, but it's what did happen," Marcus said. "It's not a pretext."
A judge in July 2018 initially granted Pitt's motion to dismiss the case, saying it didn't meet basic parameters. But the Third Circuit said that was in error, ruling in July 2019 that the court went too far in saying Bagic had not made a prima facie case.
"If the threat was indeed falsely reported, its propagation throughout the University's investigation and subsequent appellate procedures raises a question of discriminatory intent," the appeals court said.
"The hearing panel on the University's internal appeal recommended, and the Chancellor found, that the existence of a death threat was unsubstantiated. [This] may be a symptom of deep animus based on Bagic's ethnicity," it said — questions that needed to be delved into through the discovery process.
There was no testimony Wednesday on the question of whether Bagic actually did kill during the war, which took place from 1991 to 1995.
The trial is nonbinding and, since it was a bench trial, no verdict has yet been rendered. The parties are scheduled for a settlement talk Thursday.
Bagic is represented by John Corcoran of Jones Gregg Creehan & Gerace.
The University of Pittsburgh is represented by Jonathan Marcus of Marcus & Shapira LLP.
The case is Bagic v. University of Pittsburgh, case number 2:18-cv-00511, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
--Editing by Breda Lund.
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