DANIEL S. YUAN
JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
Argued: December 6, 2016
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.
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. 
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
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.
AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Yuan alleged in a lengthy amended complaint the following
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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
Yuan, 227 Md.App. at 558, 135 A.3d at 522.
Yuan filed a petition for writ of certiorari in this Court.
We granted the Petition for Certiorari ...