Monday, January 24, 2011

No defamation in scientific-misconduct case

I get the feeling that federal judges really love defamation cases. Defamation law in New York is complex and almost completely case-law driven. The cases are also interesting because they involve personality conflicts, hurt feelings, etc. It's like returning to law school for some complex moot-court competition. But the plaintiffs in these cases rarely win. There are too many ways to excuse the allegedly defamatory statement.

The case is Chandok v. Klessig, decided on January 13.

Plaintiff and defendants are both Ph.D. researchers. They were looking into "immune response mechanisms in plants." At her New York research facility, Dr. Chandok completed some experiments that supported her groundbreaking hypothesis and resulted in scholarly articles that attracted attention in the research community. But then Dr. Chandok transferred to Maryland, and her former colleagues, including defendant Dr. Klessig, could not replicate Dr. Chandok's findings in her absence. Despite their repeated requests, Dr. Chandok refused to return to the New York facility to show them how she got her results. Dr. Klessig began to wonder if Dr. Chandok had cooked the data to support her conclusions, and he shared that belief in her "possible scientific misconduct" with important people in the research community, including the prestigious journals that ran the research articles (and ended up retracting the articles) and the institutions that funded the research.

Dr. Chandok's defamation case fails under New York law. Accusing a scholarly researcher of intellectual dishonesty may tarnish your reputation, but there are privileges that the defendants can invoke to avoid losing the case. One privilege lets you speak out "in the discharge of some public or private duty, legal or moral." Another privilege "extends to a communication made by one person to another upon a subject in which both have an interest." These privileges overlap for Dr. Klessig, who gets the case dismissed because he had a legal duty to notify the research institutes that financed Dr. Chandok's alleged fraud, and he also had a moral obligation to share his concerns with the research institute that sponsored the research and subsequently investigated the allegations. As the Court of Appeals (Kearse, Calabresi and Jacobs) notes, "The reputations and credibility of both institutions and all of these individual scientists were imperiled by the fact that they were explicitly associated with scientific articles that may have been predicated on fabricated research results or fraudulent reporting." Everyone who shared in Dr. Klessig's suspicions also had a common interest in hearing it, satisfying another privilege.

These privileges may be overcome if the plaintiff can show the defendant spoke with malice. Good luck with that in New York. Dr. Chandok cannot prove malice. Dr. Chandok did not try to help her former colleagues replicate her research, suggesting she had something to hide. An investigation also raised questions about her record-keeping practices with respect to her research results. In other words, the Court of Appeals finds that the negative allegations were made in good-faith, not maliciously.

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