UVA researcher wins whistleblower case, could get $1.7 million

File photo. File photo.

A jury in a whistleblower case in federal court in Charlottesville last week awarded a former UVA researcher $660,000, determining he was wrongfully fired after drawing attention to alleged misuse of grant funds from the National Institutes of Health—and the plaintiff’s attorney says his client could end up with a much bigger payout.

As initially reported by C-VILLE, former psychiatry department researcher Weihua Huang sued two supervisors, saying he was given a non-renewal notice after he confronted the men after they adjusted the allocation of his grant funding. Another claim of a First Amendment violation was previously thrown out by judge Norman K. Moon, but the jury found Huang’s firing had violated the False Claims Act, which protects those who draw attention to misuse of federal funds from retaliation.

Adam Augustine Carter of The Employment Law Group, Huang’s lead counsel, said the judge is expected to double the jury’s award of $160,000, which comes on top of $500,000 in compensatory damages. Carter said Moon also opened the door to the possibility of $1 million in “front pay” for Huang—money he would have been entitled to had he not been fired—as well as attorney’s fees. All that could drive the final award to more than $1.7 million, he said. Huang’s initial NIH grant totaled $378,750.

Carter said the judge’s ruling sets a precedent for relatively rare federal whistleblower cases, and underscores the importance of careful oversight of NIH funds at research universities, which are supposed to hold such grants in trust for the researchers who have won them.

what htis canse makes clear is that they are holdign that oney in rust. its not that they have it and have earned it and can spread it around wherever they want. its that they have t, and they have it in trust and then they must apply it according to the needs of each indiv grant.

“What this case makes clear is that they are holding that money in trust,” Carter said. “It’s not that they have it and have earned it, and ca spread it around wherever they want…they must apply it according to the needs of each individual grant.”

The ruling—and the size of the eventual award—will likely make many people sit up and take notice, said Carter.

“My expectation is that we will be hearing about similar situations at other universities very soon,” he said.