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Whistleblower wins unfair contract termination suit

Court ruling awards former laboratory researcher more than $800,000, finds unfair contract termination

A former University laboratory researcher has received more than $800,000 in compensation after a federal jury last week decided he had been unfairly fired after he reported “unauthorized modifications” to the terms of a research grant.

Dr. Weihua Huang was notified his contract would not be renewed in November 2009, a little more than a month after he reported his supervisor, Dr. Ming Li, for allegedly increasing the amount of time researchers contributed to a genetics project funded by the National Institutes of Health. The alterations led to an increase in funding.

In a lawsuit filed in August 2011, Huang asserted this change did not accurately reflect the amount of time researchers invested in the project, and that only “principal investigators,” in this case him, were allowed to alter grants. Huang received the grant from the institute in June 2009 to study the functional characteristics of a gene known as ANKK1 and its relation to nicotine addiction.

When Huang reported these allegations to the chair of the department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, Dr. Bankole Johnson, Johnson assured him the changes would be corrected and any excess money received would be returned, according to the suit.

The entirety of the money received inappropriately from the grant was returned by May 9, 2011, according to the suit.

The jury last week awarded Huang compensation for back pay accumulated after his termination and $500,000 in non-economic damages, including damage to his academic reputation. He may also receive further compensation for court fees and costs, as well as front pay covering the future salary Huang would have received had he continued working for the University.

Huang’s supervisors claimed in court his termination was not provoked by his reporting the “unauthorized modifications” to the conditions of the grant, but rather by his poor overall performance as a researcher.

Huang’s letter of non-renewal said that “the intended decision [was] based upon the development of serious issues concerning your professional relationships with your supervisor, Dr. Li.” Earlier, Li had privately called Huang’s professional attitude “selfish” and “untrusted” and characterized by “low and unacceptable productivity,” according to Judge Norman Moon’s decision.

This ruling could have a large impact on the University and judicial precedent regarding the False Claim Act, a piece of legislation that allows prosecution of people or companies who fraudulently obtain government funds, said Adam Augustine Carter, Huang’s attorney.

“It’s clear now that the University accepts federal funds in trust for the benefit of all the taxpayers and that the University is not going to be permitted to make changes at its whim without the clear authorization of the principal investigator,” Carter said.

This case may not be the last time the issue comes up either, Carter said. “[The defendants] said they do this all the time and that it’s routine, which tells me that this [ruling] is really going to shake up the way the accounting is going to be done on these grants,” he said.

University spokesperson McGregor McCance declined to comment on whether the University had conducted an internal investigation into the allegations against Li. “The University is evaluating the case, but other than that, I can make no further comment,” he said.


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