Former UVA researcher’s suit claims retaliation over fraud accusations

File photo. File photo.

A researcher fired from UVA’s psychiatry department is suing for reinstatement under a whistleblower protection known as the False Claims Act, saying he was forced out after drawing attention to fraud related to misappropriation of federal grant funds.

UVA has declined to comment on the suit, and an attorney for the plaintiff, Dr. Weihua Huang, has said only that he’s looking forward to the trial. But a 45-page memorandum issued by the court in early September lays out the details.

Huang came to UVA as a non-tenure-track researcher in 2005 when his longtime mentor, Dr. Ming Li, was recruited to the Department of Psychiatry by department chair Dr. Bankole Johnson. In June 2009, Huang landed a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study nicotine addiction. Li had been against Huang leading the study, but he ultimately stood down and agreed to be a co-investigator, leaving Huang as principal investigator, but dependent on Li for lab space and equipment.

By that time, Li and Huang’s working relationship had begun to deteriorate. Accusations of insubordination arose when Huang used a UVA purchasing card to buy a work laptop without permission. Around the same time, Huang started inquiring about University grant management policy, apparently concerned that he’d never received required monthly expense reports.

When he got hold of the reports, says the memorandum, Huang found Li had redrawn what are known as the “levels of effort” for the grant, redirecting how the funds were paid out and naming another researcher, Nicole Gautier, as part the project despite the fact that she wasn’t working on it.

“According to Dr. Huang, the alterations allowed Dr. Li to devote his and Ms. Gautier’s time to other research projects, yet draw money from the ANKK1 grant to pay unrelated salaries and expenses,” the memorandum reads.

Huang reported what he said were unauthorized and illegal modifications to his grant to Johnson in October 2009, and attempted to take back control of the funds. But a month later, he was issued a notice of non-renewal from Johnson—essentially, a pink slip. Negotiations ensued as the researchers apparently tried to work out a way for Huang to stay at UVA through the end of his grant funding period, but he was gone by the end of 2010, several months before his funding would have allowed.

When Huang initially brought suit in 2011, he named UVA as a defendant. Judge Norman K. Moon dismissed that claim, but ruled Huang could sue Li and Johnson on the basis that his disclosure about the misallocation of NIH funds should have been protected under the False Claims Act.

Whether there’s a connection between that disclosure and his firing is now up to a jury, said attorney Rebecca Royals, a Richmond employment law expert. Royals said that according to legal precedent, whether or not any fraud actually occurred may be beside the point.

“Even if it’s not ultimately determined that there was a violation, that doesn’t mean that an employer could not have retaliated,” Royals said.

Moon’s memorandum shows that some of Huang’s peers already concluded there was reason to question the firing. Before he left the University, Huang brought his situation before the Faculty Senate. Ultimately, a peer review panel found that UVA hadn’t adequately justified Huang’s termination. “In our view, the possibility that Dr. Huang’s non-renewal was at least in part an act of retaliation cannot be ruled out definitively,” the panel’s report read.

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