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. (Science is not naming the defendant, an alleged victim of sexual harassment.)
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.”
The motion adds: “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.”
Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination at U.S.-funded educational institutions governs MIT’s investigation, along with other policies. It requires confidentiality and bars retaliation against participants in the process.
In today’s filing, the Whitehead and Lehmann ask the judge to stay the lawsuit “to permit the investigative and deliberative process at MIT to proceed to the extent possible” without the alleged victim and other potential witnesses fearing Sabatini’s retaliation. It also asks the court to remove public access to the lawsuit, which names the defendant, and to bar Sabatini from distributing it.
“The ability of a senior male professor to rally the resources to file suit and publicly ‘shame’ a Whitehead Fellow/MIT junior faculty member who has complained about his conduct, particularly while an investigation is ongoing, will effectively end the ability of educational institutions to enforce Title IX,” the filing contends.
Sabatini’s lawyers declined to comment on the request for an emergency stay.
The Whitehead motion argues that the stay would be “brief … pending the resolution of MIT’s process.” However other investigations involving sexual harassment that have led to revocation of tenure have taken years to reach conclusions.