UC Davis ‘whistleblower’ wins $730,000 verdict

A Sacramento Superior Court jury has awarded a $730,000 verdict to a former UC Davis administrative nurse who claimed in a lawsuit that her career was ruined when she blew the whistle on an unethical pain management research project on prison inmates.

The jury’s decision came down late Monday in favor of Janet Keyzer, who had worked as an administrative nurse researcher for the UC Davis Center for Healthcare Policy and Research for more than nine years at the time of her termination in November 2007.

Keyzer, 59, is a 30-year nurse with a Ph.D. in human and community development, according to her lawsuit. She said she was subject to a series of retaliatory actions after she began work on the university’s Community Oriented Pain-Management Exchange Program in December 2006 and raised questions about whether a research project on physically and mentally disabled inmates at San Quentin Prison had obtained the consent from its “human subjects.”

According to Keyzer’s lawsuit, the project gathered medical data from the patient/inmates’ medical records without their permission and without the approval of the university’s Institutional Review Board that is supposed to review all requests for research on people.

When she expressed her concerns to her supervisor, “Ms. Keyzer was ostracized by COPE management and others at the Center,” her lawsuit said. She said her project manager became “hostile, abusive and rude” toward her.

In June 2007, the plaintiff’s husband, Ken Keyzer, a part-time technical staffer on the COPE project, was fired, the suit said. After the termination, Janet Keyzer directly contacted the Institutional Review Board, and it “confirmed the improprieties Ms. Keyzer identified,” her suit said.

University spokesman Andy Fell released a timeline Thursday confirming that the IRB on June 13, 2007, shut down the COPE prison project with a cease-and-desist order.

The timeline said that as a result of the IRB probe, the review board “suspended all current studies of the (unnamed) principal investigator,” as well as the official’s status as a principal investigator, for one year. The university also established a mandatory training program and referred the matter to the Academic Personnel Office, the timeline said.

Keyzer continued to work for the center and was offered a part-time research position as an “Analyst VII.” She declined the job, the timeline said.

“Ms. Keyzer explained that she had not applied for the Analyst VII position and that she was unwilling to accept a contract position under the circumstances,” her lawsuit said.

The university gave her a layoff notice in December, 2007, retroactive to the previous month. She filed her internal whistleblower retaliation complaint in January, 2008 and her lawsuit in June, 2010.

“I think people need to know this was an extremely important case for nurses everywhere, and more importantly, medical researchers,” said Keyzer’s attorney, Lawrance Bohm, of Sacramento. “It’s scary to make a complaint. It took a lot of courage for Ms. Keyzer to pursue this case.”

UC Davis spokesman Andy Fell said university attorneys are “reviewing the verdict and considering what to do next.”

“We’ve never disputed that she made a whistleblower complaint, which was promptly investigated, and that issue was dealt with,” Fell said. “When the funding for that project ended, as a result of the investigation, she went to another short-term position and was offered another position in November 2007.”

University attorneys said in a trial brief that Keyzer’s job as an administrative nurse researcher had always been “soft-funded,” meaning it was contingent on project funding.

They say she quit when her husband was terminated and realized she had made a mistake. “From that point forward,” the lawyers said in the brief, “her explanation of why she quit began to morph into a heroic ‘whistleblower’ resignation.”

Rather than retaliate against Keyzer, the lawyers said in the brief that university officials “tried to help her” after she quit by finding her temporary work with “bridge funding.”

Bohm said Keyzer now works as an administrative nurse at Mercy San Juan Medical Center.