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SALT LAKE CITY — A former University of Utah autism researcher, Judith Zimmerman, was awarded $760,000 in damages by a jury last week after she claimed that the university retaliated against her for reporting an unethical release of health and educational records.
Zimmerman worked at the U.'s Department of Psychiatry between 2005 and 2013 and was the principal investigator over a $600,000 yearly grant to collect information about children with autism — a grant that she had acquired before being hired by the University of Utah, according to her attorney.
In 2012, Zimmerman expressed concerns to the university's oversight offices that a statistician had shared identifiable information about children with autism with two researchers who did not have authorization to access that information. After that, Zimmerman was told her yearly contract would not be renewed and she was removed from her position as director of the Utah Registry for Autism and Developmental Disabilities and as principal investigator over the grant. Additionally, Zimmerman claimed in the lawsuit that she was denied access to the building during the end of that year's contract.
Zimmerman's attorney, April Hollingsworth, said that they suspect individuals later forged a document that would have given the researchers permission to access the information, because this document was not brought up while Zimmerman was reporting the behaviors or at the early stages of litigation.
"If they really had an agreement that gave them authority to do it, and if they had provided that to anybody involved back when Dr. Zimmerman was complaining about this in 2012, then that would have been the end of the discussion. … We still don't know when that document was created, but there's many suspicious circumstances around it," Hollingsworth said.
According to Hollingsworth, the University of Utah declined to provide an original copy of a document tied to the case, claiming that they did not have it. However, at the trial, Deborah Bilder, who had testified that she drafted the data-sharing agreement, said she may have it in her files, and that she was never asked for this document, showing that the university had not looked for the document, Hollingsworth said.
Judge Patrick Corum, who oversaw the case, "expressed dismay" at this discovery violation, according to Hollingsworth, and later he determined that because of this error Zimmerman was entitled to a default judgment. After this ruling, the jury only considered the amount of damages and was not asked to make a decision on whether the University of Utah breached its contract.
"I think the judge was convinced of the nefarious nature of what had gone on regarding this document," Hollingsworth said.
The Utah Attorney General's Office disagrees with the judge's ruling in the case and plans to appeal.
"We respectfully disagree with rulings made by the court in the Zimmerman case which led to the jury verdict. We expect to file an appeal, citing several issues, to the court after a review of the trial proceedings," Richard Piatt, director of communications, said Tuesday.
The University of Utah also responded to the decision Tuesday night.
"The University of Utah is disappointed in the verdict and disagrees with the decision," Kathy Wilets, public relations director for University of Utah Health, said in a statement. "We are currently exploring all our options including an appeal of this decision. We have robust policies in place for data integrity and security and stand by those policies. We believe in our research, including our methods to diagnose, treat, and study autism and are committed to continued research in this area.
Hollingsworth said she had planned to have an expert who had analyzed the signatures testify that the document was false, and she also said that the person who had signed the document would not have had the authority to grant permission for that information to be shared.
The attorney also represented Zimmerman in a federal lawsuit which determined that individuals at the university violated the Utah Whistleblower Act in this circumstance. The federal court determined that the university should pay for damages suffered after Zimmerman was terminated from her position.
Zimmerman explained that the damages from the federal lawsuit only considered things she suffered after she was fired. Filing the Utah case also allowed for some of the damages to address harms done before she was fired. The jury awarded $135,000 in emotional distress damages and $625,000 in other damages.
"She's been gaslighted by the university for the last nine years," Hollingsworth said. "This is a huge victory ... to finally get some validation that ... this conduct that she was complaining about was wrong and they don't have a justification for it, not a legitimate one."
Hollingsworth said she plans to ask the court to require the University of Utah to put Zimmerman back in her previous position overseeing the research and said that she is still interested in helping with that research that she was involved in prior to 2013.
"We think that the natural and just result now needs to be that … now she's compensated for what happened, but she should be put back in that position," Hollingsworth said.