A former University of Utah autism researcher on Friday was awarded $760,000 in a lawsuit that argued the university breached its contract with her by terminating her in retaliation for reporting research misconduct.
Judith Zimmerman was hired in 2005 as an assistant research professor in the U.’s psychiatry department. According to the complaint filed in 2017, Zimmerman expressed concerns to multiple administrators in 2012 about employees obtaining unauthorized access to sensitive health data. She was later terminated in mid-2013.
Before her termination, Zimmerman went to “various oversight offices” at the university about her concerns that a statistician she had hired — and later fired — had made a copy of the data, which contained “identifiable health and education records of children with autism,” according to a news release from Zimmerman’s attorney, April Hollingsworth.
The statistician then shared the data with two researchers who were not authorized to access or use the data, including William McMahon from the psychiatry department, the release states. After McMahon learned of Zimmerman’s complaints, Zimmerman was informed her contract would not be renewed, and her access to the data and building were revoked.
Zimmerman’s suit accused the university of breach of contract, arguing that her employment contract incorporated the university’s policies and that the U. violated its research misconduct policy, damaging her as a result. She requested relief from the university including back wages and benefits, compensatory damages and consequential damages. She also requested injunctive relief, including the return of data she had collected during her research.
The university denied Zimmerman’s claims, arguing that the university’s policies were not incorporated into her employment contract, and that even if they were, Zimmerman “reported privacy concerns, not research misconduct,” according to court records. The university did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The verdict was decided due to a discovery violation by the university during the trial, as the university initially argued it was unable to locate an original document later determined to be “central to Dr. Zimmerman’s case,” according to the release.
Zimmerman had sought the original document for two years, the release states. On the second day of trial last week, a doctor who had drafted the document for signature told the court that she had never been asked to provide the original document and might have it in her files at the university.
The next day, the university’s counsel, Assistant Attorney General Daniel Widdison, told the court that the doctor had located the original document and brought it to court that morning, the release states.
The “clear discovery violation” resulted in a default judgment, according to the release, which described the violation as “egregious.” The jury’s role was to determine damages.
In its ruling, the jury awarded Zimmerman $135,000 in emotional distress damages for the time prior to her termination. The jury also awarded Zimmerman $630,000 in other damages suffered from the university’s breach of contract.
In a separate 2018 judgment, a federal jury ruled the university had violated the Utah Whistleblower Act in terminating Zimmerman, but damages awarded in that case were limited to those suffered after the effective date of her termination, according to the release. The jury at the time awarded her $119,640 for lost wages, and a federal judge in April 2019 awarded her $216,798 in a retaliation suit.
Moving forward, Hollingsworth plans to file a motion to recover the litigation’s fees and costs, along with a motion to reinstate Zimmerman to her position, she said.