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Landmark ruling in scientific misconduct case

Barrett & Singal Attorneys Win Landmark Ruling in Scientific Misconduct Case
When research scientists are accused of scientific misconduct by the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), they have a legal right to appeal and seek an adjudicatory hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to clear their name. Since 2005, ALJs have, without exception, denied every such hearing request by a scientist. That may now change as a result of a recent decision by a federal judge in Washington, D.C. in a lawsuit involving a research scientist represented by Barrett & Singal’s Litigation Department.

On March 2, 2012, United States District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson issued a written opinion and order vacating a Debarment Order imposed by HHS on a research scientist, and remanding the case back to HHS for a hearing on the merits. ORI sought to debar the scientist because it claimed he had committed research misconduct. Under HHS regulations, the scientist challenged the debarment and requested a formal adjudicatory hearing. However, the ALJ denied his request for a hearing and HHS thereafter issued a formal Debarment Order which prohibited the scientist from receiving any further federal funding for any of his research. The scientist sued HHS in U.S. District Court, asking a federal judge to overturn its Debarment Order, and to require HHS to hold a hearing at which the plaintiff could defend himself against the allegations and try to clear his name.

After a thorough review of HHS’s actions, the federal judge agreed with the scientist and required HHS to hold a hearing. According to Judge Jackson, the ALJ’s decision to deny the plaintiff's hearing request was “arbitrary and capricious” because, among other things, the ALJ did not seriously consider the factual questions the plaintiff raised in his hearing request, and failed to set forth her grounds for rejecting the plaintiff's version of events. Judge Jackson considered these failures by the ALJ, along with HHS’s continued decision to deny the plaintiff access to his laboratory notebooks, to be “unreasonable,” and the Judge ordered HHS to grant the plaintiff an adjudicatory hearing. Judge Jackson’s order also vacated the HHS Debarment Order, thereby allowing the scientist to resume applying for federal funding for his research projects.

ORI changed its regulations in 2005 by eliminating the panel of scientists who had adjudicated scientific misconduct cases and replacing it with a single ALJ, who is not a scientist but a practicing attorney. Since that change, HHS ALJs have denied every single hearing request by a scientist accused of scientific misconduct. Judge Jackson’s reversal of the ALJ’s decision ensures that the plaintiff will be the first scientist under the new regulations to receive a hearing at which he can defend himself against charges of research misconduct by ORI.

To review a copy of the court's decision, click here.

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