Consumer Fraud

Judge Rejects Duke University’s Motion To Dismiss Whistleblower Lawsuit

research test tubes Judge Rejects Duke University’s Motion To Dismiss Whistleblower LawsuitA federal judge rejected a motion by Duke University and two faculty members April 26 to dismiss a whistleblower lawsuit accusing them of knowingly falsifying medical research data in a scheme to pull in more federal grant money.

According to Law360, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles of the Middle District of North Carolina said whistleblower Joseph Thomas’ False Claims Act lawsuit made valid accusations that warranted scrutiny.

Mr. Thomas alleges fellow Duke researcher Erin Potts-Kant used fraudulent data in nearly every experiment in which she participated. He also claims she included the bad data in published research, ultimately prompting scores of papers to be either fully or partially retracted.

When he filed the lawsuit in 2013, Mr. Thomas was a laboratory research analyst in the Pulmonary, Asthma and Critical Care Division of Duke University Health Systems and Ms. Potts-Kant was a clinical research coordinator in the same department.

Mr. Thomas alleges that when Ms. Potts-Kant was studying the effects of pollutants on the body’s airways, she manipulated data to produce the outcome she desired.

“Sometimes, the suit alleges, she hadn’t exposed mice to the right experimental conditions or run the experiments at all,” Science magazine reported. “Other times … Potts-Kant had run the experiments but altered the data, tweaking them to match the hypothesis or boost their statistical significance.”

Mr. Thomas also alleges that Ms. Potts-Kant’s supervisor, William Michael Foster, and the university reviewed all the research in which Ms. Potts-Kant was involved, but withheld its findings from federal agencies when applying for new grants or reporting on existing ones.

As a result, the whistleblower complaint alleges, Duke has received at least 49 grants worth $82.8 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and other agencies “that were directly premised on and/or arose from the research misconduct and fraud of Potts-Kant and/or the Foster lab.”

He also alleges the “doctored data helped other institutions win 15 additional grants, worth $120.9 million, from NIH,” according to Science.

The federal government declined to intervene in the case last summer but has maintained an active interest in it.

According to Law360, Judge Eagles said little about her decision to let the case stand beyond that Mr. Thomas brought claims upon which relief could be granted.