Judge bars UNC from colluding to prevent medical-faculty transfers

The historic Old Well and South Building at UNC-Chapel Hill, where officials want to charge students a new fee to help with campus building repairs.
The historic Old Well and South Building at UNC-Chapel Hill, where officials want to charge students a new fee to help with campus building repairs.

A federal judge has approved a settlement between UNC-Chapel Hill and a former Duke University radiologist that bars the public university from colluding with other organizations to suppress competition for labor.

The deal further requires UNC-CH to cooperate with radiologist Danielle Seaman’s lawyers as they continue to pursue an anti-trust lawsuit against Duke University.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles approved the deal Thursday, capping the first stage of a lawsuit that accuses the two universities of working together to prevent “lateral” hiring raids of medical faculty.

There was little surprise in move, as UNC-CH officials agreed to the settlement last fall and Duke’s lawyers hadn’t registered any objection to it.

Nonetheless, “we’re certainly pleased” to have the judge’s approval and see the deal as “a terrific resolution of the class’ claims against UNC,” said Dean Harvey, one of the San Francisco-based anti-trust lawyers representing Seaman.

The radiologist, then an assistant professor, sued Duke in 2015 after her attempt to secure a similar position at UNC came up short.

She claimed the then-deans of the UNC and Duke medical schools, Bill Roper and Nancy Andrews, had agreed to avoid trying to hire away each other’s faculty unless the job swap came with a promotion.

And Seaman was able to rely on more than faculty water-cooler gossip to bolster that claim, as she possessed an email from a UNC School of Medicine official that cited the supposed deal as the reason for turning her down.

Roper, who is still the UNC school’s dean and also the CEO of the UNC Health Care System, eventually told lawyers he’d tried to enlist Duke officials in “some kind of understanding between us about the movement of faculty.”

He also admitted telling department chairs in the UNC school to avoid “hostile, unneighborly” actions against Duke after the private university unsuccessfully tried to recruit UNC’s bone-marrow transplant team.

UNC officials ‘pleased’

After Thursday’s ruling, UNC-CH spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny said officials there were “pleased” that Eagles had approved the deal.

She noted that UNC-CH “denies that it violated the law, pays no settlement amount or attorneys’ fees and agrees to enhance its anti-trust compliance efforts.”

Meanwhile, there’s no smoking-gun evidence in the public record against Duke of the kind Seaman and her lawyers were able to muster against UNC-CH.

Roper told them his then-counterpart at Duke, former Chancellor for Health Affairs Victor Dzau, turned aside his request for an understanding on hiring. He’s also said he has “no idea” what the Durham school’s views are regarding the competition for talent with UNC-CH.

Harvey and the rest of Seaman’s legal team – veterans of Silicon Valley hiring-collusion lawsuits against the likes of Apple Corp. and Google Inc. – suspect the lack of an explicit deal masked the existence of an informal one.

Anti-trust training

The settlement rules out UNC-CH’s future participation in one regardless, and not just with Duke and not just for medical faculty. The university has to give senior administrators training on the relevant points of anti-trust law, and on request stand ready from year to year to certify that it’s in compliance.

With Thursday’s approval in hand, the radiologist’s lawyers are now focusing on Duke.

But Duke’s defense team has signaled that it will dispute both the actual and practical existence of any non-compete arrangement, as it can point to numerous medical-school professors who’ve swapped a job in Chapel Hill for one in Durham.

They’ve also laid the groundwork to argue the smoking-gun email Seaman and her lawyers lean on was its author’s ill-founded excuse for a hiring decision that went against her for completely different reasons.

Seaman’s lawyers have styled the lawsuit as a class action on behalf of all medical employees at the two universities. But Eagles has yet to agree to that, and left the question open at the end of about a four-hour hearing.

She’s dropped hints that if she does label it a class action, she might say only faculty would ultimately be eligible to claim damages.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg