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Yuan v. Johns Hopkins University

Court of Appeals of Maryland

March 29, 2017


          Argued: December 6, 2016

         Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 24-C-13-8243

          Barbera, C.J. Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Hotten, Getty, Raker, Irma S., (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.


          GREENE, J.

         In this case, Petitioner, Daniel S. Yuan, M.D. ("Dr. Yuan"), challenges the Court of Special Appeals' conclusion that there was no clear public policy mandate to support a claim for wrongful termination for reporting research misconduct in a federally funded project at Respondent institution Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine ("JHU"), a scientific research institution. Dr. Yuan was a researcher employed by JHU. The suit arises from Dr. Yuan's allegation that he was wrongfully terminated in retaliation for his repeated protests of research misconduct in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 289b and 42 C.F.R. Part 93. [1]

         We hold that these provisions regarding research misconduct do not provide a clear public policy to support a tort claim for wrongful termination of employment. The self-regulating provisions direct the federally funded scientific institutions to provide procedures to investigate allegations of research misconduct, take appropriate action, and address retaliation. See 42 C.F.R. §§ 93.300-93.304. The scientific institution, not this Court, is in the best position and has the expertise to determine whether the research results of its employees amounted to impermissible research misconduct or permissible error or differences of opinion. Dr. Yuan did not follow the protocol outlined in JHU's policies for research misconduct claims. Further, Dr. Yuan acknowledged in his brief filed in this case that the regulations do not provide him with legal redress in the form of damages and he therefore seeks tort damages based on a theory of wrongful termination. However, there was no clear violation of the research misconduct regulations to warrant a cause of action for wrongful termination.

         Dr. Yuan also alleged conversion because after the termination of his employment, he was denied access to stored research materials he had collected. However, JHU owned the research materials pursuant to its policy, and it is well settled that a party may not convert that which it owns. Therefore, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.


         Dr. Yuan alleged in a lengthy amended complaint the following facts:

         Dr. Yuan was Board-certified in General Pediatrics and Pediatric Gastroenterology. He was employed by JHU as a researcher with the Pediatrics Faculty. In July 2001, he joined the lab of Dr. Jef Boeke ("Dr. Boeke"), a Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics and the head of a yeast genetics lab. The lab was largely funded through the National Institute of Health ("NIH"), an agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services ("DHHS"). Between February 2002 and June 2011, the NIH provided over $11.8 million to the lab for research on the Synthetic Lethality Analyzed by Microarray ("SLAM") project, which was an ambitious yeast genetics research project using a novel methodology, as well as a $34 million grant for a project related to the SLAM research. In Dr. Boeke's lab, Dr. Yuan was initially responsible for developing the computational infrastructure to manage the SLAM project's massive datasets.

         When SLAM entered its Production phase, in 2004, Dr. Yuan discovered and reported to the Production team a concern that contaminating traces of DNA from preceding SLAM experiments had led to false positive results. However, the team resisted his concerns and suggestions for addressing the issue and instead began withholding data files from him.

         Dr. Yuan stated that from 2005 through 2011, he repeatedly reported research misconduct concerning the yeast genetics research claiming that the SLAM researchers were falsifying the results. In particular, on November 28, 2005, Dr. Yuan emailed Dr. Boeke about issues he identified in research completed by Xuewen Pan ("Dr. Pan"), a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Boeke's lab. Dr. Yuan stated that Dr. Pan's "genes are preselected, " and that continuing with those research projects "will only generate more useless data." He also stated that the SLAM team had already established that "most of the [SLAM Project] hits being identified are bogus."

         Dr. Pan's research was published in a biomedical journal, Cell, with Dr. Boeke as the senior author in early 2006. Moreover, Dr. Boeke cited Dr. Pan's research when he applied for grant renewals through the NIH. After the NIH renewed the SLAM project funding in late 2006, Dr. Boeke issued a new organizational chart which had the effect of excluding Dr. Yuan from extensive involvement with the SLAM research. Dr. Yuan maintained that he protested his lack of a definite professional role in the SLAM Project and found himself increasingly marginalized and excluded from the data management.

         Between 2006 and 2008, the SLAM research was unsuccessful; the lab did not have significant results to report to NIH. Dr. Boeke asked other researchers to review the SLAM project data, excluding Dr. Yuan. The researchers corroborated Dr. Yuan's findings and found that the data had an extraordinarily high "False Discovery Rate." In the summer of 2008, Dr. Boeke decided not to renew the NIH grant for SLAM, although, some funding remained available to operate SLAM.

         In January 2009, after analyzing Dr. Pan's microarray data from his Cell publication, Dr. Yuan determined that Dr. Pan could not have obtained the results he claimed. His conclusion was not that Dr. Pan fabricated the results; instead, Dr. Yuan asserted that Dr. Pan likely conducted the experiment with preconceptions of the results he wanted to find-and then managed to find those results. Dr. Yuan also concluded similarly with respect to a paper published in 2008 by Dr. Yu-yi Lin ("Dr. Lin") in Genes & Development. In January of 2009, Dr. Yuan also notified both Dr. Boeke and SLAM's project manager, Dr. Meluh, of the problems with Dr. Pan's 2006 and Dr. Lin's 2008 papers.

         Dr. Yuan was informed by Dr. Boeke in December 2009 that Dr. Boeke would not be renewing his faculty contract for 2011, unless he was able to secure self-sustaining funding within the next year. Dr. Boeke explained this was due to limited funding; however, at that time, Dr. Boeke established three new full-time positions with the SLAM Project for three other individuals.

         Dr. Yuan again reported problems with SLAM research, in January 2010, at a lab seminar where he identified bizarre zigzag patterns after plotting data for individual genes in SLAM's Production data in chronological order. Dr. Yuan concluded that these zigzags were both non-random and unpredictable and were also large enough to masquerade as the genetic interactions that SLAM was looking for; thus, according to Dr. Yuan, attempts to interpret SLAM's data were doomed to fail. Further, during the last week of the NIH funding of SLAM, on June 29, 2010, Dr. Yuan wrote to Dr. Boeke that after analyzing the production team's last 118 experiments, he found about ten percent had "noise" (bad data) with no apparent cause and only about ten percent "looked pretty good."

         In October 2010, two of the grant applications Dr. Yuan sought funding for had failed. Dr. Yuan asserted that Dr. Boeke falsely conveyed to him that there was no available funding to support him. On December 14, 2010, Dr. Carol Greider ("Dr. Greider"), the director of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, offered Dr. Yuan a part-time support staff position for the 2011 year to expire at the end of that year. The salary was $24, 800, well below his salary as a researcher. Dr. Yuan accepted the employment contract; however, from January 2011 forward, Dr. Boeke excluded Dr. Yuan from lab activities.

         On April 29, 2011, Dr. Lin held a seminar in Dr. Boeke's lab. Dr. Yuan alleged that the data results were inaccurate because when he asked Dr. Lin several questions regarding the research neither Dr. Lin nor Dr. Boeke could provide adequate responses.

         Further issues arose when on June 29, 2011, Dr. Yuan submitted a publication and listed himself as the sole author. Dr. Boeke asked Dr. Greider to issue a written reprimand to Dr. Yuan for failing to offer Dr. Boeke shared authorship of the published manuscript. Dr. Greider issued a reprimand to Dr. Yuan. This led to Dr. Yuan meeting with Joan Johnson, a human resources representative for JHU School of Medicine, on July 8, 2011, to discuss Dr. Yuan's concerns about Dr. Greider's reprimand. Dr. Yuan also initiated JHU's Grievance Appeals Process. He explained that his employment problems arose over the context of results produced in the lab, and that there was an inexplicable vehemence that Dr. Boeke and Dr. Greider exhibited towards him. JHU denied Dr. Yuan's grievance appeal on December 22, 2011.

         Dr. Yuan's employment contract was set to end on December 31, 2011. Prior to his end date, he requested a property pass from Dr. Boeke, which would allow him to move his research collection of archived cells out of the lab. Dr. Boeke refused to provide him the pass until they could come to an understanding of all the issues relating to which files and materials Dr. Yuan could take.

         On November 30, 2011, Dr. Yuan requested an affidavit or other confirmation that Dr. Boeke would give Dr. Yuan access to Dr. Yuan's archived cells for five years. According to Dr. Yuan, Dr. Boeke initially accepted this request, but later failed to mention the matter in any correspondence between Dr. Yuan, Dr. Boeke, and JHU. Later, JHU declined to provide such access. On December 15, Dr. Yuan went to JHU to seek access to his materials and was escorted from the workplace by JHU Security Officers.

         After Dr. Yuan's employment contract with JHU had expired, in early 2012, a "Letter" (equivalent to a research paper) was published in a scientific research journal, Nature, with Dr. Lin and Dr. Boeke named as the authors. After reviewing the publication, Dr. Yuan believed there were serious conceptual errors in the paper. He concluded that the underlying data was not reproducible. Dr. Yuan's counsel, on May 14, 2012, told Ronald J. Daniels, the president of JHU, and Edward D. Miller, the president of the School of Medicine, about these "serious scientific problems" in the publication. Patricia L. McClean, JHU senior associate general counsel, responded on May 21, 2012 stating that, "[t]he School of Medicine is looking into the allegations of research misconduct made in your letter under its Procedures for Dealing with Issues of Research Misconduct." No one from JHU, however, sought further information from Dr. Yuan nor contacted him regarding the Nature paper.

         On July 24, 2012, Dr. Yuan submitted a "rebuttal analysis" to Dr. Lin and Dr. Boeke about the Nature article for submission to Nature. Dr. Yuan requested that both Dr. Lin and Dr. Boeke respond. A response was due on August 7, 2012. Neither doctor responded. On August 8, 2012, someone emailed Dr. Yuan, using Dr. Lin's account stating, "Dr. Yuan, Yu-yi [Dr. Lin] passed away this morning. Now you must be very satisfied with your success. Congratulations[.]" The death appeared to be a suicide as news accounts in Taiwanese media made clear that Dr. Lin had died in his lab from a self-administered overdose of sedatives. Moreover, the media reported he had attempted to jump off a building the previous evening. His wife stated that Dr. Lin was concerned about a "conduct-of-research" case and had trouble sleeping from the pressure.

         Dr. Yuan received an email from Dr. Boeke on February 11, 2013, asking if he would sign a "correction" that was prepared for the 2006 Cell paper. "The gist of the correction was that the fraction of genetic interactions that could be traced back to the paper's SLAM-based microarray data was 75[%], not 90[%] as originally stated." Dr. Yuan responded to Dr. Boeke that he would not sign a correction, but Dr. Boeke still submitted them to Cell, which published it as an "Erratum" on May 23, 2013. On November 6, 2013, the Nature paper was also retracted. There was no "correction." Dr. Boeke admitted that "the Methods section in our Letter is inaccurate, and that for 38% of the interactions found by the primary screen there was discordance in sign, " which was consistent with Dr. Yuan's findings. Dr. Yuan implies that this acknowledgment of incorrect data indicates that research misconduct occurred.

         On December 13, 2013, Dr. Yuan filed, in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, a complaint for damages against JHU. He alleged wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Dr. Yuan based this wrongful discharge action on 42 C.F.R. §§ 93.100- 93.104, which provides that DHHS, including NIH, must investigate and punish intentional, knowing, or reckless "research misconduct" that represents "a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community." The regulations direct the federally funded institutions to provide procedures to investigate misconduct, take appropriate action, and address retaliation. See 42 C.F.R. §§ 93.300-93.304. "Research misconduct means fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results." 42 C.F.R. § 93.103. Dr. Yuan also brought claims for conversion and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage. JHU filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment and a request for a hearing. On May 12, 2014, the Circuit Court held a hearing and granted JHU's motion to dismiss because Dr. Yuan failed to identify a public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill, for the

Circuit Court, explained:
There certainly are ample allegations that Dr. Yuan raised and continued to raise issues within his lab with Dr. Boeke and with others about the conclusion being reached by the research, [and] the manner in which the research was conducted. But the allegations very carefully skirt the line of fraud, falsification of data or manipulation of data. And it is a good illustration of why this tort needs to be drawn narrowly [so] that it does not amount to the opportunity for courts to litigate debates, intellectual debates within the scientific community about methodology or research methods or conclusions. Based on the allegations, even giving them full credit, until after Dr. Yuan was fired, his objections amounted to those types of intellectual debates and challenges within the lab. . . . "[W]hile there's not [sic] question that academic integrity and research integrity is an important value, I conclude that it does not rise to the level that the Court of Appeals would recognize as the clear public policy necessary to support [a] cause of action for the tort of wrongful discharge in Maryland.

         The Circuit Court also rejected the conversion claim:

[A]lthough it may be that there is a policy at Johns Hopkins University to on a case-by-case basis allow research material or research data to be released for the individual or non-Hopkins use by researchers who have developed it at Hopkins, the basic policy, which is clearly stated and has not been challenged here, is that Hopkins asserts its ownership of all research material and all research data that has been developed within labs of the University. . . . Hopkins could not have converted what it in fact had ownership of.

         Dr. Yuan filed a timely notice of appeal from the judgment of the Circuit Court. The Court of Special Appeals affirmed. Yuan v. Johns Hopkins Univ., 227 Md.App. 554, 135 A.3d 519 (2016). The intermediate appellate court concluded:

[T]hat the broad language and complex nature of these federal provisions, their deference to institutions, such as Hopkins, for the prevention and detection of research misconduct, and the difficult line they draw between scientific errors and wrongdoing and between falsity and fraud, make this a poor State public policy vehicle to carry a wrongful discharge action. Because the Circuit Court for Baltimore City did not err in rejecting this claim and others advanced by Yuan, we affirm.

Yuan, 227 Md.App. at 558, 135 A.3d at 522.

         Dr. Yuan filed a petition for writ of certiorari in this Court. We granted the Petition for Certiorari ...

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