Vivian Cheung, an RNA biologist and human geneticist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has lost her employment discrimination claim against the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Cheung’s lawsuit alleged that HHMI had not renewed her funding because of her disability. She says that she will now appeal the jury’s finding against her.
Cheung has a rare genetic disorder that affects her peripheral vision and balance, and in 2015 she suffered a spinal cord injury that left her wheelchair-bound for a period. The jury’s unanimous verdict, which came on 14 December after an eight-day trial, was that this disability was not the basis of HHMI’s decision not to renew her funding.
There are concerns that this case could undermine efforts to include more disabled scientists in research institutions. However, HHMI maintains that Cheung’s science was simply not up to standard.
‘I hope that the verdict itself did not do too much damage, I hope that our attempt to rectify the problem starts a process,’ Cheung told Chemistry World. ‘We are planning to appeal … there is a filing within a month .’
Cheung was seeking more than $2.7 million (£2.1 million) from HHMI to compensate for loss of wages, benefits and research funding. She is not the first Asian American woman to sue HHMI for discrimination. Jeannie Lee, a Harvard Medical School geneticist, also sued the foundation in 2019, alleging discrimination based on age, race, sex and national origin. A court dismissed Lee’s entire suit in mid-2022.
Extra assistance requested
Cheung became an HHMI Investigator in 2008, but suffered a spinal cord injury in 2015 and needed to use a wheelchair. At the time, she was travelling almost weekly between Michigan and the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, where she was seeing patients and receiving treatment.
Navigating airports in a wheelchair was particularly challenging, so Cheung asked HHMI around late 2015 whether she could use her funding to hire an assistant to help her. ‘They sent me a very long list of invasive questions about what happened to me,’ she recalls, and then HHMI asked her to meet with Erin O’Shea, who at that time was its vice president but now is its president, as well as with the foundation’s general counsel and head of human resources.
‘I knew something was wrong, and even though I tried to withdraw the request they were already concerned,’ Cheung recollects. Ultimately, she figured out how to make do without the extra assistance, but it was difficult.
The next major episode occurred in 2018, when Cheung’s HHMI contract was coming up for renewal. To her surprise, she says she was invited to retire despite still being in her 40s, and also asked about her medical situation and prognosis. ‘I rejected their proposal that I retire and went up for renewal,’ Cheung says.
‘When the jury gave its ruling, one of my mentees with disabilities said to me, “I guess I will never have a seat at the table”,’ Cheung tells Chemistry World. ‘The lawsuit was mostly to punch holes into a system that lacks inclusion of people with disabilities in Stem, and I hope the verdict doesn’t discourage more people.’
Cheung says she’s after real change, not just compensation. She wants to go back to being an HHMI investigator, and to help ensure that the foundation is more inclusive, especially of those with disabilities.
HHMI said it is pleased that the jury agreed Cheung’s allegations are without merit. Over the course of 12 years, the foundation said it provided more than $12 million in financial support for her research.
According to HHMI, Cheung’s appointment was renewed in 2012 with a low passing score and at the time she was informed about a lack of focus and depth, as well as other concerns. Then in 2018, the foundation said, a panel of 20 independent peer review panelists determined that she was not performing at a high enough level to warrant seven more years of HHMI financial support, so her contract was not renewed.
A success story?
Rory Cooper, a biomedical engineer at the University of Pittsburgh and a disabled veteran who uses a wheelchair, is also concerned that Cheung’s legal defeat could have a chilling effect on disabled scientists pursuing research careers. ‘There’s already a propensity for people to hesitate to disclose that they have a disability – both to their employers and their funding agencies – and I think this will only cause concern, primarily to people starting their careers,’ he says.
Cooper highlights that disabled researchers need role models who can serve as mentors, as well as improved lab accessibility and more accessible fieldwork opportunities.
Proving an employment discrimination claim is an extremely difficult task in part because the US supreme court has made the evidentiary burden much greater, according to Doron Dorfman, an associate law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who has expertise in disability law. ‘That is why many of these cases do not even reach a jury trial as they are either dropped or settled early.’
Dorfman says that high-profile cases like this one could stop researchers from asking for workplace accommodations. ‘They are likely to think that such accommodation can be deemed unreasonable in the eyes of the employer and reflect badly on them as unqualified or incapable,’ he suggests.