The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
From Friday's article at Science.org (Meredith Wadman):
The Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research asked a Massachusetts judge today for an emergency stay of a defamation lawsuit filed against it last week by its former biologist David Sabatini.
The Whitehead and its director, Ruth Lehmann, jointly filed the motion in Middlesex County Superior Court. A lawyer for the third defendant in the Sabatini suit, a woman who told Whitehead investigators that Sabatini had sexually harassed her, filed an affidavit in support of the motion. It alleges that Sabatini filed the lawsuit to intimidate the defendant from cooperating with an ongoing probe by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Sabatini is a biology professor. That process could lead to revocation of his tenure at MIT.
Sabatini resigned from the Whitehead Institute in August after an outside law firm hired by the institute to investigate found "that Dr. Sabatini violated the Institute's policies on sexual harassment among other policies unrelated to research misconduct," according to an email Lehmann sent staff there at the time. He was also fired from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which supported his lab at the Whitehead, and placed on administrative leave by MIT while it launched its own probe.
In the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, Sabatini alleges that after he ended a consensual affair with the defendant, she "became determined to destroy" him and fabricated the harassment allegations….
In its motion, however, the Whitehead argues that the lawsuit's "purpose is clear: to chill this young woman's participation in the ongoing investigation and send a message to anyone else who might otherwise come forward."
From the Complaint (Sabatini v. Knouse, No. 21CV02828, Mass. Super. Ct. Middlesex County), which alleges libel, tortious interference with economic relationships, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress:
[1.] This case involves the manipulation and abuse of laws and policies designed to ensure workplace equality to instead punish an ex-lover. The result has been to inflict substantial and potentially irreparable damage to the career of Dr. David M. Sabatini, a brilliant scientist.
[2.] Beginning in April 2018, Dr. Sabatini had a consensual sexual relationship with a friend, colleague and peer, Defendant Dr. Kristin A. Knouse.
At this time, Dr. Sabatini was a world renowned medical and scientific researcher and a tenured professor at MIT with a stellar reputation who conducted groundbreaking research into the pathways that regulate growth and metabolism and how they are deregulated in diseases like cancer and diabetes. Dr. Sabatini was then, and for many years had been, a principal investigator who had his own laboratory at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research ("the Whitehead") where Dr. Knouse worked as well as the principal investigator of her own lab. Dr. Sabatini's sexual relationship with Dr. Knouse was effectively over by July 2019. Starting then and through the rest of 2019 and early 2020, Dr. Sabatini made clear to Dr. Knouse on multiple occasions that he did not want a long term relationship with her. After Dr. Sabatini ended the relationship, Dr. Knouse continued to attempt to engage with him sexually and emotionally despite his repeated requests that she stop.
[3.] In March 2021, the Whitehead commenced an 'investigation' into the 'culture' in Dr. Sabatini's laboratory. At that time, almost 40 individuals, including post-doctoral fellows, Ph.D. students, researchers, and others, worked in Dr. Sabatini's laboratory (the "Sabatini lab"). Dr. Sabatini had a well-deserved reputation for mentoring young scientists that attracted applicants from the best schools in the world. The 'investigation' was conducted at the behest of Dr. Ruth Lehmann, who took over as the Whitehead's Director in July 2020, after Dr. Sabatini made it clear that he did not have an interest in being Director as he wanted to continue focusing on his research.
[4.] The Whitehead's 'investigation' was a sham. Although ostensibly triggered by a diversity survey distributed to those working at Dr. Sabatini's lab, less than a half-dozen members of Dr. Sabatini's lab completed the survey. Instead, the centerpiece of the 'investigation' became Dr. Knouse's fabricated claims that Dr. Sabatini had sexually harassed her (when in fact the exact opposite was the case) and had subsequently threatened to retaliate against her if she reported him.
[5.] For months, the Whitehead's attorneys conducted extended interviews, often on multiple occasions, with the members of Dr. Sabatini's lab. Interviewees reported that the attorneys conducting the supposed impartial investigation spent literally hours attempting to elicit unflattering information about Dr. Sabatini while their descriptions of what lab culture was really like were ignored. Several interviewees complained directly to Dr. Lehmann about the lawyers' bias and their intransigent refusal to listen to the truth, to no effect whatsoever.
And here's an excerpt from the motion to stay and impound:
Sabatini's action involves an independent workplace investigation commissioned by the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research ("Whitehead"). The "extensive investigation and report" identified "multiple violations of Whitehead's policies, including a policy prohibiting sexual harassment." See Exhibit 1, Statement of L. Rafael Reif, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ("MIT"), August 21, 2021. As a result, Sabatini's employment was terminated as an investigator by Howard Hughes Medical Institute ("HHMI"), and he resigned from Whitehead. MIT placed Sabatini on leave and is now undergoing its own investigative process, "with consequences that could extend to revocation of tenure." Id. Thus, this lawsuit is about what happened in the context of the Whitehead's workplace investigation – and what is happening at MIT – as a result.
That process, which must be informed by MIT's own policies and the requirements of both Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and M.G.L. c. 151B, requires confidentiality and bars retaliation against participants in the process.
Notwithstanding, Sabatini decided – with MIT's processes ongoing – to file this action before this Court. He named as a defendant a young woman scientist who had responded when asked to participate in the Whitehead investigation and who had raised concerns about Sabatini's conduct. While she did not stand alone, as several men and women spoke to investigators about troubling conduct in the Sabatini Lab, Sabatini focuses on her. His purpose is clear: to chill this young woman's participation in the ongoing investigation and send a message to anyone else who might otherwise come forward.
As set forth in greater detail below, the Defendants believe that Sabatini's lawsuit – its timing, contents, and public distribution – represents a direct attack on the pending proceedings at MIT and undermines all the law's protections against retaliation and the protection of potential witnesses to participate in them.
Thus, in the interests of justice, the Defendants come before this Court and seek an emergency order, staying all proceedings to permit the investigative and deliberative process at MIT to proceed to the extent possible without the retaliatory reminder of the consequences of participation. They further ask that this Court impound the Complaint and order the Plaintiff not to further disseminate it or otherwise retaliate directly or indirectly against any party1 or participant in the MIT process.
I can't speak about the motion to stay, but the attempt to seal the case strikes me as hard to justify; cf. Bernstein v. Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossman (2d Cir. 2016), which held that both the First Amendment and the common-law right of access generally preclude sealing Complaints in civil cases, even in cases that are dropped weeks after the case is filed. In any case, I suppose we'll see soon enough what the court says about that.