Ending seven years of court action and appeals, the University of Michigan has paid $1.67 million in damages to a scientist who said her work had been stolen by her supervisor.
The money went to Dr. Carolyn Phinney, 46, a researcher in psychology who specialized in issues of aging and adult development, in a civil case that began in 1988.
The award is believed to be the largest ever won by a scientist against a university in a misconduct case, said Dr. Robert Sprague of the University of Illinois, who maintains a database of misconduct cases in science research.
The case was also unusual because a jury awarded damages both for retaliation by university officials and for fraud. The university turned over the $1.67 million to Phinney on July 30, along with a box of research data that had been taken from her. About $500,000 went to her lawyer, Philip Green.
Phinney said last week that she would use part of the money to finance a fledgling nonprofit organization called WISE (for Whistle-blowers or Integrity in Science and Education), which she hopes will be able to help other whistleblowers with counseling and legal help.
Phinney said that she was relieved the case was over, but that it was not a joyous time. “I have lost my data on 10 years of work,” she said. “I’ve lost my career. I got very sick. I believe what happened to me was intellectual rape.”
Since 1992, Phinney said, she had not worked steadily, because of clinical depression and post-traumatic-stress disorder.
Lisa Baker, a University of Michigan associate vice president for university relations, said that the university “remains convinced that the decision of the jury in the lawsuit brought by Phinney against the university was in error.” She added, “The U.M. continues to stand behind our personnel in this matter and believe they acted appropriately.”
The university dropped its appeal when it became clear that there was very little chance that the verdict would be reversed, a university official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The two senior scientists cited in the civil lawsuit, Drs. Marion Perlmutter and Richard Adelman, did not return calls seeking comment.
The case began in 1988 when Phinney was doing part-time research at the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Michigan while she finished a post-doctoral fellowship at the Institute for Social Research. Phinney was working on what is recognized as a difficult topic: how wisdom, or understanding gained through living, can be defined and measured. She had just solved the core of the problem, and her supervisor, Perlmutter, a recognized researcher in aging, suggested she write up that and other research in applications for grants.
Perlmutter promised Phinney that she would be listed as the first author on papers resulting from the work as well as a job at the Institute of Gerontology, Phinney said. But after Perlmutter had Phinney’s research and grant applications in hand, Phinney asserted, Dr. Perlmutter said the work was her own.
When Phinney complained to university officials, the lawsuit contended, Adelman, who was director of the Institute of Gerontology, threatened Phinney. He said in court testimony that he had told Phinney that if she did not drop the matter against her senior colleague, she would be dismissed. Perlmutter then dismissed Phinney from her laboratory. Phinney found work elsewhere at the university until 1992.
After a year of negotiation failed, Phinney took the matter to the Washtenaw Circuit Court in Michigan. In 1993, a jury found unanimously that Perlmutter had committed fraud and Adelman had retaliated against Phinney.
In April, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s award against Perlmutter and Adelman, but said that the university’s Board of Regents should not be held accountable for the retaliation. In July, the court denied a motion for reconsideration, prompting the university to pay the damages.