A University of Virginia researcher has been awarded approximately $820,000 after a federal jury found he was fired after telling authorities that his supervisor altered a grant awarded to him by the National Institutes of Health.
Weihua Huang filed the lawsuit in August 2011, claiming he was fired by the university after he reported to supervisors that Ming D. Li, a laboratory supervisor, changed figures on the grant that spelled out how much time would be spent by lab staff on the project. Those figures determined how much money from the project would be paid to staff members.
Huang’s suit was filed under the False Claims Act of federal law and the Whistle Blower Protection Act. It named the rector and UVa’s Board of Visitors as defendants along with Li and Bankole A. Johnson, chairman of UVa’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences.
Adam Carter, Huang’s attorney, said his client was awarded about $160,000 in back pay, which would be doubled under the law. Huang also was awarded $500,000 in compensation for non-economic damages. The judge will consider whether to award lost future wages or order Huang’s reinstatement at a later date.
“This decision is important to the entire grant community because, on these grants, levels of efforts are assigned and the principal investigator is responsible for the use of the money,” Carter said. “That is the person who needs to be responsible and, in this case, that responsibility was taken over by the lab director.”
Carter said the decision is also important as it helps set precedent for cases filed under the False Claims Act cases.
“There are precious few of these cases that go to trial and get a verdict,” he said.
UVa officials could not be reached for comment for this story Friday.
According to the suit, Huang applied for and received $378,750 in NIH funds in 2008 to support his research on the genetics of nicotine addiction and smoking behavior. The research was to be conducted between June 2009 and February 2010.
The terms of the grant said Huang was to allocate 50 percent of his working time to the project and Li was to allocate 5 percent of his time.
Huang later discovered that Li changed the figures and assigned a new person to the job. The suit claimed that Li increased his level of effort from 5 percent to 7.5 percent, increased Huang’s level of effort from 50 percent to 75 percent, and assigned 50 percent of a lab technician’s time to the project, all without consulting Huang, the principal investigator.
The suit claimed that the unauthorized changes did not reflect the actual work that was being conducted and that the technician performed no work on the project.
In October 2009, Huang reported the unauthorized changes to UVa officials, who told Huang that the changes would be readjusted and any money withdrawn under the changes refunded. The suit claims the money was not refunded, however.
The NIH, when informed of the changes to grant more than a year later, declined to investigate the matter.
In November 2009, Huang was given written notice that his employment contract would not be renewed when it expired the next year. The notice also precluded Huang from using Li’s laboratory without prior permission. The suit said that, in December 2009, new locks were placed on the laboratory that hindered Huang’s access.
In February 2010, Huang was “informed that he was facing immediate termination due to his supposed lack of compliance” with the November 2009 notice of nonrenewal, according to the suit, and Huang filed a grievance with the Faculty Senate Grievance Committee.
In May 2010, the school placed Huang on administrative leave without pay, saying that Huang did not comply with the terms of the November 2009 notice, but the Faculty Senate Peer Review Panel found that the university did not properly justify Huang’s proposed termination.
Huang’s suit claimed that UVa “retaliated against him for exercising his constitutional right of free speech as a private citizen for speaking out on a matter of public concern.” UVa claimed that Huang and Li had personal issues and that Huang was let go because of his performance and conflicts with supervisors.
The matter went to the jury after U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon ruled that there was a reasonable chance that the dismissal could be related to Huang’s disclosing the changes in the grant pay scheme.
“I find that there is ample evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that [UVa’s] decision to issue Dr. Huang the non-renewal letter was motivated, at least in part, by Dr. Huang’s protected activity — namely, presenting his suspicions about the fraudulent allocation of levels of effort on the grant,” Moon wrote in a Sept. 6 ruling that let the matter go to a jury trial. “I cannot say that [UVa has] affirmatively shown that they would have made the same decision irrespective of Dr. Huang’s protected activity.”
Daily Progress staff writer Samantha Koon contributed to this story.