Lee v. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
The Firm, along with lead co-counsel Ropes & Gray LLP, successfully defended Howard Hughes Medical Institute (“HHMI” or the “Institute”), a not-for-profit biomedical research organization, against claims of discrimination based on race, gender, and national origin arising from the decision not to renew the appointment of plaintiff Dr. Jeannie Lee (“Plaintiff” or “Dr. Lee”), a research scientist in the field of molecular biology. HHMI appointed Dr. Lee as an “Investigator” for HHMI in 2000, after which she became an HHMI employee, but continued to do research at her host institution, Massachusetts General Hospital (“MGH”) with funding from the Institute. HHMI awards appointments to scientists who are at the top of their scientific field. Dr. Lee was twice renewed as an Investigator by the senior scientific officers of HHMI, assisted by an advisory panel of scientists who are not HHMI employees. In 2016, Dr. Lee’s application for renewal was denied for a fourth term. Plaintiff alleged that the decision was discriminatory and also alleged that she was underpaid relative to other Investigators based at MGH.
In July, 2017, Dr. Lee, a woman of Asian descent, filed a charge of discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, alleging that HHMI had discriminated against her on the basis of age, race, sex, and national origin when it decline to renew her service as an Investigator. She also claimed that while she was an Investigator, the Institute had discriminatorily paid her a substandard salary. In mid-2019, Dr. Lee commenced an action in Massachusetts Superior Court alleging discriminatory nonrenewal in violation of Massachusetts anti-discrimination law M.G.L. c. 151B (“Chapter 151B”), and two counts of salary discrimination under Chapter 151B and the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act, M.G.L. c. 149, §105A (“MEPA”), among other contractual claims. HHMI removed the action to the United States District Court for the district of Massachusetts and all but the three claims above were dismissed.
After extensive discovery, HHMI moved for summary judgment on the three remaining claims. With a decision on the Institute’s motion pending, the parties prepared for a trial set to begin on June 27, 2022.
THE DISTRICT COURT DECISION
On June 9, 2022, the Court, Hon. Gorton, J., granted HHMI’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of Dr. Lee’s discrimination claims, thereby dismissing the entire suit.
First, with regards to her nonrenewal claim, the Court disagreed with Plaintiff that HHMI had not renewed her for a fourth term as an Investigator due to biases harbored by her reviewers. Dr. Lee had conceded that there was no direct evidence of discrimination, but contended that the low scores and comments she received from the advisory panelists who reviewed her renewal application were not supported in light of her accomplishments, but were instead the result of “unexamined bias on the basis of gender and/or race/national origin,” and that the ultimate decision by the Institute’s scientific officers was tainted by this bias.
The Court found that Plaintiff had made a prima facie case for discrimination. It next addressed HHMI’s response that the decision was the product of collective scientific judgment, and that Dr. Lee had not met the standards for renewal. The Court found that Plaintiff had not offered even minimally sufficient evidence that the legitimate reasons offered for her nonrenewal were pretextual, in other words, that there was no evidence she had been held to a higher standard as a woman of Asian descent than her male and non-Asian comparators, or that the standards for renewal were manifestly unequally applied.
The Court found that the evidence presented, taken together, raised not the slightest inference from which a jury could find a discriminatory motive for the non-renewal. The Court also found that speculation about the influence of bias, unconscious or otherwise, is, without more, insufficient to suggest discriminatory animus in the decision, and her claim could not survive summary judgment.
Pay Discrimination Claims
Second, with regards to Dr. Lee’s two pay discrimination claims, Plaintiff also alleged that during her time as an Investigator, the Institute paid her less than male comparators for similar work, constituting salary discrimination in violation of Chapter 151B and MEPA.
The Court found that Plaintiff’s Chapter 151B claims were time barred, because her claim accrued in August, 2016, when Plaintiff received a salary increase based on an alleged salary equity review by MGH that showed her salary was approximately $26,000 lower than it should have been. The Plaintiff knew or should have known that she had been harmed when she received an increase that was less than the full amount requested by her host institution. Even if she did not know the specific details of the alleged discrimination, she was on notice that she may have suffered harm as of the date that MGH communicated with her about her raise, but did not file her pay discrimination claim until more than 300 days later. Therefore, the 151B pay discrimination claim was dismissed.
Dr. Lee claimed that she was unlawfully underpaid under MEPA for the period of time after the amended version of that statute went into effect in mid-2018, through the time when Dr. Lee was phased out as an Investigator in September, 2018.
MEPA prohibits disparate compensation of individuals of different genders who perform comparable work, but allows variations in pay based on seniority, merit, education, training, and experience.
The Court found that the appropriate comparators for Dr. Lee were other Investigators at the same host institution, but that three of the four male comparators were clearly senior to Dr. Lee or performed substantively different duties than Dr. Lee (such as clinical duties as opposed to exclusively research).
Importantly, the Plaintiff had provided no information regarding the fourth potential comparator from which the Court could determine that their two jobs shared common characteristics or required similar levels of skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions, such that their pay could be compared. Since Plaintiff had provided no evidence of a proper comparator, the Court entered summary judgment on behalf of HHMI on this claim.
The published District Court opinion is available here.