University of Utah must pay whistleblower $216K in attorney fees, judge rules

A federal judge has ordered the University of Utah to pay another $216,798 to an autism researcher who says her superiors retaliated against her.

The amount is in addition to what a jury awarded Judith Zimmerman in August — $119,640 for lost wages. The U. also must pay $10,080 in court and deposition costs.

“The University is disappointed in this decision,” said Kathy Wilets, a spokeswoman for University of Utah Healthcare, “and is seeking advice from the Attorney General’s office regarding an appeal.”

Zimmerman’s attorney, April Hollingsworth, said her client feels vindicated.

“They took away her livelihood and her reputation,” Hollingsworth said Tuesday, “and really what else could she do but fight it?”

Zimmerman was a speech language pathologist who in 2005 accepted a faculty position and was named director of the database known as the Utah Registry of Autism and Developmental Disabilities. In 2012, she became concerned that researchers were accessing the data without authorization, perhaps violating patients’ privacy and exposing them to unwanted attention from schools and employers.

After she took her concerns to multiple administrators, the then-chairperson of the psychiatry department informed Zimmerman that her yearly contract would not be renewed. Zimmerman filed suit in December 2013.

The lawsuit took a winding path, with federal judges asking the Utah Supreme Court for clarifications on state law. Of Zimmerman’s 13 claims, only two made it to trial.

Zimmerman also has filed a breach of contract lawsuit in state court. A judge in November of last year refused to dismiss the case. That trial has not yet been scheduled.