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Judge dismisses lawsuit filed by fired UND professor

GRAND FORKS—University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy did not violate policy when he fired a professor last year, a Grand Forks judge recently ruled.

A lawsuit brought against the university and Kennedy by former professor Frank Cuozzo was dismissed Tuesday, Aug. 28.

Cuozzo taught biological anthropology at the school for 12 years. He was fired in May 2017 "with cause" after the Standing Committee of Faculty Rights found there was "clear and convincing evidence" to support his termination.

Cuozzo was arrested Sept. 8, 2015, for drunk driving on UND's campus before his scheduled morning class, but he was fired more than a year later because he did not notify his department about being absent from class multiple times, according to a January 2017 dismissal letter from Thomas DiLorenzo, UND provost and vice president for academic affairs. Cuozzo also did not submit evaluation materials for an annual review.

The former professor said he missed four classes for medical reasons and a flight delay, and the reason he didn't submit evaluation materials is because he claimed the department chair at the time, John Mihelich, "demonstrated abusive, harassing and discriminatory behavior toward me for many months."

Cuozzo did not question the committee's findings, but he challenged Kennedy, who decided to fire him just four days after the committee recommended Cuozzo be allowed to resign. Cuozzo claimed Kennedy's decision was too quick to have reviewed all of the facts in the case. The lawsuit alleged Kennedy violated UND and State Board of Higher Education policy because the president did not cite findings of fact from the committee, among other things.

But the wording in the policy does not necessarily require Kennedy to make findings of fact, Grand Forks District Judge Jay Knudson said in his opinion. Even if it did, the fact that Kennedy did not include his findings of fact in his letter to Cuozzo did not prevent the process from fulfilling its purpose, Knudson said, adding Cuozzo was made aware in several ways why he was being fired.

"Even if Kennedy did not strictly comply with the regulation, Kennedy did substantially comply with the regulation," the opinion said. "The ultimate decision-maker does not need to read every word, and Kennedy clearly stated that he considered the evidence presented at the hearing."

Knudson also said the result for Cuozzo would have been the same, even if Kennedy made "extensive findings and citations" in his letter to the ex-professor.

Cuozzo, who has not been hired since being fired from UND, and his attorney, Leo Wilking, both "respectfully disagree with Judge Knudson's decision," Wilking wrote in an email Thursday to Forum News Service. The former professor plans to appeal the ruling through the North Dakota Supreme Court, Wilking said.

UND spokesman Peter Johnson said the school will not comment on the lawsuit.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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