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Ian Lipkin is being sued by his long-time collaborator Mady Hornig.

JOSHUA BRIGHT/The New York Times

Lawsuit at Columbia University roils prominent chronic fatigue syndrome research lab

A sex discrimination lawsuit filed last week has exposed a nasty fight roiling one of the most prominent, and well-funded, labs studying the mysterious condition known as chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalopathy (CFS/ME). The lengthy list of accusations, the most gossipy of which sparked coverage by the tabloid New York Post, include diversion of federal and foundation grant money.

Ian Lipkin of Columbia University, a well-known virologist who  probes links between microbial infections and neuropsychiatric disorders, is being sued, along with the university, by epidemiologist Mady Hornig, his long-term collaborator. In the lawsuit, filed on 15 May in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, Hornig alleges that Lipkin for years has discriminated against her on the basis of sex and created a hostile work environment, violating U.S. and New York civil rights laws. In particular, it alleges that Lipkin took credit for Hornig’s work; diverted or misused funds, thus delaying the publication of Hornig’s research results; undermined her relationships with external collaborators and potential donors; and improperly added himself as principal investigator to grants.

In an email response to a request for comment, Lipkin denies the charges, writing, “I did not engage in any wrongdoing and will vigorously defend against the allegations." A Columbia spokesperson said the university does not comment on matters in litigation. 

Hornig, who also declined to comment, works at the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health; Lipkin directs the center and is Hornig’s boss. Lipkin and Hornig have worked together for 21 years trying to tease out the impact of infection and immunity on brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia, and more recently CFS/ME.  

The lawsuit asserts that Hornig and Lipkin “had a personal relationship that ended in 2011.” It then offers a variety of claims about subsequent discriminatory conduct by Lipkin, and the lack of a forceful response by Columbia when Hornig reported those actions.

“Throughout their professional relationship, Lipkin made clear that he expected [Hornig] to be his largely-silent and always subservient partner, forced to work almost exclusively on his projects and to give him undue credit for her own work,” the lawsuit states. It adds: “No male faculty member in the Center is or has been subject to the same constraints or is or has been treated in this manner.”

Lengthy complaint

According to the lawsuit, Hornig filed a complaint against Lipkin with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in April 2016.  Lipkin’s discrimination against her escalated when he became aware of the EEOC complaint, the lawsuit alleges, and Columbia failed to take sufficient action, leading Hornig to sue Lipkin and the university.

The lawsuit alleges that since 2013, Lipkin has refused to allow Hornig to post about her own work on the center’s website unless the postings include him; required her to get his permission before giving invited talks; routinely presented Hornig’s work as his own in meetings with collaborators; blocked her from meetings with potential donors; and silenced her at meetings, “sometimes kicking Plaintiff on the shins, under the table … or saying ‘shut up, Mady’ or ‘shut the f**k up, Mady’ at meetings attended by both Columbia and non-Columbia colleagues.” He also, she alleges, has repeatedly refused to support her for promotion to full professor, even while supporting a male colleague. 

Among the claims of misuse of funds, Hornig alleges Lipkin paid the salary of a researcher studying CFS/ME with money from the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, which was supposed to be dedicated to an autism study. The suit also claims Columbia had to return more than $53,000 to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) because Hornig refused to sign off on improper use of autism grants.

The lawsuit also cites an incident with this reporter as evidence that Lipkin took undue credit. When Lipkin was interviewed this past November about a 2-year, $766,000 project on CFS/ME funded by NIH, on which he and Hornig are co–principal investigators, Lipkin credited several external collaborators but did not mention Hornig’s contribution to the work, which aims to identify biomarkers of CFS/ME. (This reporter did not ask him directly about Hornig.) The article as initially published named only Lipkin as principal investigator. The lawsuit says that Hornig brought the matter to attention of a Columbia press officer, who, allegedly over the objections of Lipkin, contacted Science requesting that Hornig’s name be added to the online version of this article (it was).

Hornig, a physician, also alleges that in 2014 and 2015 Lipkin summoned her to his office, dropped his pants and asked her to examine lesions on his buttocks; the lawsuit states that she complied for fear of retribution. For the same reason, according to the lawsuit, Hornig kept quiet about Lipkin’s overall pattern of behavior toward her.

When Columbia’s human resources department was alerted to the situation in 2015, through an intermediary, the lawsuit alleges Lipkin stripped Hornig of her title as medical director of the center and “severely curtailed” her access to technicians and staff. About this time, according to the lawsuit, a colleague told Hornig that Lipkin was out to “demolish” her and that his determination to sully her reputation had made him “manic.”

The lawsuit also suggests Hornig and Lipkin disagreed on what some of the lab’s data supported. At one point in 2016, according to the lawsuit, “Lipkin kept insisting on capturing a particular message from work [on an autism/prenatal acetaminophen study] which did not appear to be supported by the data.” 

Deborah Waroff, a retired Wall Street energy analyst and CFS/ME activist who was diagnosed with the poorly understood illness in 1989, bemoans the conflict between two of the disease’s leading scientists. The lawsuit claims that for a period the friction led to delays on five CFS/ME papers. “On balance this looks bad for CFS/ME,” Waroff says. “It is already disrupting research partnerships, and if the litigation proceeds, much more time and energy will have to shift from science to legal wrangling.”