Read our COVID-19 research and news.

poaching talent
Credit: Yuoak / iStockphoto

An academic 'poaching' lawsuit from a scientist who didn’t move

In August, we reported on the lawsuit brought by the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), against the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, in an effort to stop USC’s alleged attempt to bring a multimillion-dollar Alzheimer’s disease research project along with its new recruit, neuroscientist Paul Aisen, from UCSD to USC. We noted that though some observers view universities’ efforts to bring major researchers to their campuses from elsewhere as effective recruiting, others see it as harmful poaching.

In North Carolina, meanwhile, another scientist’s effort to move from Duke University in Durham to the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, has also resulted in a lawsuit, but for an entirely different reason. Danielle Seaman, an assistant professor of radiology at Duke, claims that “an illegal conspiracy” among Duke, UNC, and the two universities’ health systems not to raid each other’s talent barred her from consideration for an advertised opening at UNC, according to the complaint filed with the court. 

[L]ateral moves of faculty between Duke and UNC are not permitted.

–UNC's chief of cardiothoracic imaging

Allegedly, the institutions’ goal was to “suppress the compensation of their employees,” according to the complaint. “Without the knowledge or consent of their employees, [Duke’s] senior administrators and deans entered into express agreements [with UNC] to eliminate or reduce competition … for skilled medical labor” by not “hir[ing] or attempt[ing] to hire” from each other. This deal, the complaint argues, constitutes an unlawful restraint of trade.

When UNC advertised a position in cardiothoracic imaging, the complaint claims, Seaman wrote to the division chief to express interest in applying. As quoted in the complaint, he wrote back saying “I agree that you would be a great fit. … Unfortunately, I just received confirmation today from the Dean’s office that lateral moves of faculty between Duke and UNC are not permitted. There is reasoning for this ‘guideline’ which was agreed upon between the deans of UNC and Duke a few years back. I hope you understand.” (Emphasis is in the original.) Seaman did not understand, so she wrote back to ask about this “reasoning.” The guideline arose, the division chief allegedly replied, “in response to an attempted recruitment by Duke a couple of years ago of the entire UNC bone marrow transplant team; UNC had to generate a large retention package to keep the team intact.” (Emphasis is in the original.)

The universities have not commented on the case, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Still, The Chronicle quotes a former senior vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke as saying, “[i]n my time in the administration, there was a general practice that we did not recruit aggressively at the other institution, and vice versa. … It was based on thinking both institutions were better if each institution was strong.”

Seaman is represented by a North Carolina law firm and also by Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein (no relation to this reporter), the San Francisco-based legal powerhouse that won a $415 million settlement against tech giants Google, Apple, Intel, and Adobe for colluding to keep wages down by not hiring each other’s workers. Seaman’s complaint requests a jury trial and approval of the case as a class action “on behalf of a class of similarly situated individuals,” presumably the employees of Duke and UNC. Stay tuned for developments.