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Utah Autism Whistleblower Lawsuit Will Go to Trial After Federal Judge Denies a Majority of Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss

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By Mark Blaxill

In a development sure to put the integrity of the CDC’s autism surveillance estimates in the spotlight, a Federal District Court Judge for the District of Utah issued a ruling Friday that effectively guarantees a Utah autism whistleblower her day in court.  Judge Jill N. Parrish denied a majority of motions by Dr. William McMahon of the University of Utah to dismiss allegations by Dr. Judith Pinborough Zimmerman that McMahon and his colleagues acted improperly in retaliating against her for raising concerns over their research misconduct, violated university policies by terminating her contract without proper review, and impugned her reputation in the process.

Dr. Zimmerman filed her lawsuit against Dr. McMahon nearly two years ago, in a complaint that describes a heated dispute between the two scientists over the proper handling of confidential health and education records as well as the accuracy of the data records used in measuring Utah’s autism prevalence as part of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) autism surveillance project, the Autism and Development Disabilities (ADDM) Network. Since 2002, Zimmerman had been the Director of Utah’s ADDM Network site, the Utah Registry of Autism and Developmental Disabilities (URADD). She joined the University of Utah in 2005, bringing the URADD grant with her. She was removed from her URADD and university positions in 2013.

Zimmerman’s lawsuit alleges that McMahon and colleagues violated federal records privacy restrictions in efforts to carry out lucrative additional research projects; these were privacy restrictions that she had carefully negotiated with the Utah Departments of Health and Education in order to bring URADD into compliance with federal law and protect autism families from unwanted use of their personal and family information. When Zimmerman expressed her concerns over privacy and data quality issues to University authorities, McMahon summarily fired her, locked her out of her office and placed himself in charge of URADD. Since Zimmerman’s dismissal, McMahon has become the PI of the URADD and watches over Utah’s contributions to the CDC’s ADDM reports.

In addition to raising issues of research integrity and privacy, Zimmerman’s allegations have broad implications for the integrity of CDC’s autism surveillance estimates. Court documents reveal that Zimmerman was concerned that errors in Utah’s autism data were finding their way into CDC estimates beginning with the 2010 ADDM report, which provided estimates of autism rates among children born in 2002. If uncorrected, these errors might have continued in the 2012 report released earlier this year, measuring autism rates in children born in 2004.

Utah’s autism rates carry unusual importance in part because Utah’s reported autism rate in the 2008 ADDM report was the highest of all participating sites. In that report, Utah’s rate of 1 in 47 children born with autism in 2000 was the highest rate ever recorded in the United States; it was also an increase of 155% over Utah’s 1994 birth group, which at the time was the third highest rate in the country. Since reaching a peak in the 2000 birth group, Utah’s autism rates have plummeted while most other states have shown continued increases in the last two ADDM reports.

MB UTah chart

If Utah’s more recent autism data is found to be of poor quality, the CDC’s autism prevalence calculations, which appear to have plateaued at 1 in 68, might be thrown into question. And if McMahon is found to have committed research misconduct by inappropriate use of research grants, as Zimmerman has alleged, then the CDC’s role in supervising autism research integrity, already battered by accusations of research fraud and embezzlement, will come under even greater scrutiny.

Zimmerman’s conflict with McMahon may have deeper roots than the privacy and data integrity claims cited in Zimmerman’s lawsuit. McMahon has been an active contributor to genetic studies of autism causation and participated as a co-author in dozens of such publications. Zimmerman, by contrast, led a study investigating “Maternal Residential Proximity to Toxic Release Inventory Sites” in children with autism. After speaking to a reporter at the Salt Lake Tribune about the study, she was reprimanded by McMahon. CDC has long been reluctant to investigate environmental causes of autism and McMahon’s interest in genetic research may well have made it easier for him to replace Zimmerman as the CDC’s Utah PI.

With a date as of yet undetermined, Zimmerman will have a chance to defend her career and reputation in front of a jury. Judge Parrish’s decision directly denied McMahon and the University’s request to dismiss Zimmerman’s allegations in 7 out of 12 causes of action in her complaint. McMahon and the University succeeded in dismissing 3 of the 12 causes; the remaining two were certified to the Utah Supreme Court, with Parrish asking for guidance in the absence of “controlling Utah law.’

Mark Blaxill is Editor-At-Large for Age of Autism.

Comments

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JO

Too late for hope.....Adults have no services you know the 46% with more severe cases. Life happens started 3rd non-profit for adults, dying mother, cancer, midlife normal stuff....then one of the twins had a breakdown? who knows? truly. It has been 24/7 fighting for him no they have no civil rights you need to have money and a lot. Of course the other choices let the system have them. Then they die before their time, molested (1 out of 98% sexually assaulted at least one time.... oops per gov. report so can't trust that) stealing all their possessions and worse. All I want is a house for them, the best legal doc's, love (and a schedule)(: and to know I kept my full promise to them when I found out they had autism. Never, Never Ever Give UP. The age group of 12-17 now when they grow up maybe, just maybe we can talk about what to do about our adults! Where are all the adults I do know actually I know too much.....God Speed for you and ours....

Anna Quandt

Thank you Mark. So McMahon manipulates the research to make it look as if there is no epidemic, eschews research into the environmental causes of the epidemic, silences the real science and real scientist, grabs the money and the power.
Does Dr. Zimmerman have a gofundme site?

Pia Lebsund

Thank you for sharing this information. I was also a whistleblower when I started to change the situation for kids with autism in making a rapport on free time activities they didn´t have. First I was planning the budget for all kids in Stockhom´s area and saw that my son didn´t have any acitivities when I compaired it to normal kids. The community didn´t want to pay any attention on this so i was fired. Then I tried to change the situation as a freetime politician in Stockholm´s community and county. The same thing there.I noticed that the agreements on institutions where not okey and alarmed all handicap organisations. I saw that not educated people worked and so on. I paid a big price for this even my son. This conspiration is spread out with other´s that want to make big money on this. I wish you the best luck for justice in this area. I am searching names for politicians that are really helping people with autism. Can you give me names please?

Laura M

We need to continue to hope that bringing to light the CDC's cover-ups regarding autism will eventually reach a level of awareness from the good people of the world that something will be done to stop autism's progression.

It is important to know what the incidence is, because numbers command research dollars (in most cases.) If those who have contributed to this epidemic with their toxic products can pay to manipulate the facts regarding the incidence AND the causes, there will be no more research, no movies, no magazine articles and books, no Robert de Niro and Holly P Robinson and Jenny McCarthy interviews on TV demanding answers and help. The evil ones will get to continue their evil ways and can concentrate on making more vaccines and more drugs to alleviate symptoms of the epidemic they created.

Have hope! The news is finally getting out and people are starting to listen. Keep telling them!

Julio mendez

CDC is the most corrupt institution in the world,these bastard are poisoning our children!

Jan Petersen

I hope they take it to McMahon, who apparently seems to have no ingetrity with what he does in his professional! Shame on him! This could and should be a big disgrace to the U of U to have let this happen and not support and back up Dr. Zimmerman! I hope Dr. Zimmerman will prevail in this case and McMahon gets what he deserves.

Curious

Hope springs eternal.

Audrey Adams

After reading this, I fear that my family's personal information, now in the hands of the University of Washington as part of their new genetic study, may be at risk. With Dr. Zimmerman's whistleblower suit and CDC whistleblower Dr. William Thompson's description of manipulating data and destroying documents to hide the MMR-Autism association, how can we parents trust any autism studies? What if our personal information is abused, shared or falsified (as it surely has been in the past where no whistleblower has surfaced) in an attempt to continue to lie about the causation of autism? (...which is definitely a lot more than simply vaccines)

Thank you for this article, but I do not feel hopeful. My son was diagnosed nearly 3 decades ago and all that I can see is every year is so much worse than the last. Even if Dr. Zimmerman prevails, how will that change the true tragedy---which, by the way, is NOT how well autism is or isn't counted.

The true tragedy is that everyone appears to be immune to the growing numbers of ASDs no matter how frightening. And even if they DO get the numbers right, how does that change anything to PREVENT more babies from permanent ASD brain damage? How will it change current public health policies? How many damaged babies does it take to make everyone WAKE UP?

 Teresa Conrick

I agree, Bob -- there is hope. Thanks for this well written report, Mark. This is important for all the reasons you pointed out and also, that the message to other offenders or future attempters -- that this will not be tolerated! I hope Dr. McMahon is worried. He should be. Best wishes to Dr. Zimmerman. If there's anything we can do to support her -- I'm all for that!

Benedetta


I am surprised that the court up held and is ready to hear the case. . The American people have won that one.

Bob Moffit

"In a development sure to put the integrity of the CDC’s autism surveillance estimates in the spotlight, .... Federal District Court Judge Jill N. Parrish denied a majority of motions by Dr. William McMahon of the University of Utah to dismiss allegations by Dr. Judith Pinborough Zimmerman that McMahon and his colleagues acted improperly in retaliating against her for raising concerns over their research misconduct, violated university policies by terminating her contract without proper review, and impugned her reputation in the process."

From USA Today .. "Ten punished in Army scandal at Anthrax Lab" .. which reported that "Leadership at the Dugway Proving Grounds lab .. CREATED CONDITIONS ALLOWING A CULTURE OF COMPLACENY TO FLOURISH .. as a result laboratory personnel did not always follow rules, regulations and procedures. The report found senior Army Commander King .. repeatedly deflected blame and minimized the severity of incidents .. citing King for "lacking introspection and failing to recognize the scope and severity of incidents that occurred under his command".

If Dr Zimmerman's allegations prove true .. I suspect Dr. William McMahon of the University of Utah will be found guilty of "creating a similar culture of complacency" .. after wresting control of URADD from Dr Zimmerman .. by summarily firing her, locking her out of her office and placing himself in charge of URADD .. solely responsible for watching over Utah’s contributions to the CDC’s ADDM reports.

There is HOPE.

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