Judge moves Duke whistle-blower case to N.C.-based court

A federal judge has sided with Duke University and says a pending whistle-blower lawsuit against it should unfold in a Greensboro-based U.S. court, not the one in Roanoke, Virginia, where it was filed.

The decision comes because none of the research fraud the suit alleges to have happened took place in the Roanoke federal court’s district, and because it’s easier for potential witnesses to get to Greensboro, U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser said.

Moreover, caseloads in the two districts aren’t much of a factor, and the Greensboro court “has a notable greater interest in adjudicating” the suit because of Duke’s economic importance to the region, Kiser said.

Kiser, an appointee of former President Ronald Reagan, was ruling in a case that could potentially cost the Durham-based university hundreds of millions of dollars.

A former lab analyst, Joseph Thomas, alleges Duke officials looked the other way while another lab tech fabricated or manipulated the data that went into numerous government-funded research projects. Because the lab involved was a “core” facility many professors in the area rely on, the fraud affected projects not just at Duke but at other Triangle universities, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University included, he claims.

Thomas is suing Duke under the federal False Claims Act, which allows the federal government to recover treble damages and the whistle blower to get a share of them as a reward.

The case has been pending since 2013, and was unsealed last year after federal prosecutors declined to intervene. They asked Kiser to keep the case in Virginia — the home of Thomas’ lawyer — but the judge said their prior decision means their ability now “to direct the course of the ligitation is highly limited.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg