Note: Below is an announcement about Dr. Judith Zimmerman's legal battle. Mark Blaxill, AofA Editor at Largte wrote CDC’s Utah Whistleblower and Autism Author Speak Out on the Autism Epidemic last June. Join us in wishing Dr. Zimmerman congratulations on what has been an arduous journey.
A Utah jury has awarded a former University of Utah autism researcher $760,000 in damages due to the University’s retaliation against her for reporting research misconduct.
From 2005 to 2013, Dr. Judith Zimmerman was faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Utah, and in 2012, she was the Director of the Utah Registry for Autism and Developmental Disabilities (URADD) and the Principal Investigator (PI) of a $600,000/year CDC grant charged with collecting data on children with autism for the URADD database. In the summer of 2012, Dr. Zimmerman began going to various oversight offices at the University, including the Research Integrity Office and the Office of General Counsel, about her concerns that a statistician she had hired and later fired from working on the CDC grant, Dr. Amanda Bakian, had made a copy of the URADD data, which contained identifiable health and educational records of kids with autism, and shared it with Dr. William McMahon and Dr. Deborah Bilder, two researchers in the Department of Psychiatry who did not have authorization to access or use the data. After learning of her complaints, in December 2012, Dr. McMahon notified Dr. Zimmerman that her yearly contract, which expired June 30, 2013, would not be renewed. A few days later, Dr. McMahon removed Dr. Zimmerman as Director of URADD and made Dr. Bilder the Director. In January 2013, Dr. McMahon informed Dr. Zimmerman she could no longer access or collect data for the CDC grant, and in February 2013, he removed her as PI on the grant and made Dr. Bilder the interim PI. Dr. McMahon thereafter made himself the PI on the grant. On February 26, 2013, Dr. McMahon sent a memorandum to her staff informing them that Dr. Zimmerman was no longer allowed to access or collect data for the grant or enter the building, that the locks to the building were being re-keyed, and that the staff must “report attempts by Dr. Zimmerman to obtain data or enter the building.”
Dr. Zimmerman initially sued the University in federal court, asserting a claim under the Utah Whistleblower Act as well as breach of contract, based on the University’s violation of the anti-retaliation provision of its Research Misconduct Policy, which promised to protect the jobs and reputations of employees who complained of research misconduct. The federal court dismissed the breach of contract claim due to jurisdictional issues, and Dr. Zimmerman re-filed it in state court. The Whistleblower claim, however, went to trial in federal court in August 2018. At that trial, Drs. Bakian and Bilder pointed to a data sharing agreement ostensibly entered into between themselves and an employee of the Utah Department of Health (UDOH), Barry Nangle, as having provided them the authority to access and use URADD data — the conduct Dr. Zimmerman had been complaining about when she was fired. The federal jury found that the University had violated the Utah Whistleblower Act in terminating Dr. Zimmerman, but her damages in that case were limited to those she suffered after the effective date of her termination, June 30, 2013. Download Verdict Oct 22 2021