As the University of California Board of Regents well knows, court settlements can be useful in dodging unfavorable legal outcomes and the bad press that accompanies them.
But a recent $10 million settlement in a whistleblower-retaliation case involving UCLA doctors illustrates why settlements pose a challenge for a public university. Namely, they bury information and slow reform that could address the root cause of lawsuits.
Last week, the regents agreed to shell out $10 million to Dr. Robert Pedowitz, former chairman of UCLA’s orthopedic surgery department. Pedowitz alleged that the university retaliated against him after he pointed out that UCLA physicians were failing to disclose payments from medical device-makers and other outside groups.
As part of the settlement, Pedowitz left the UCLA faculty, and the university denied all wrongdoing.
A UCLA statement on the case claims that “multiple investigations by university officials and independent investigators concluded that conduct by faculty members was lawful.” But it doesn’t comment on the important question of whether Pedowitz was castigated for raising concerns.
While the University’s incentive to press for a settlement instead of allowing a jury to come to a verdict in order to protect the University’s good name and reputation is clear, the blanket denial of impropriety that accompanies such agreements leaves important answers shrouded in darkness.
Commissioning an independent investigation of the serious issues brought forth in this court case would go a long way to address concerns of secrecy and counter accusations that UCLA merely pays its way out of ethical quandaries.
Last July, the UC settled a discrimination lawsuit filed against the University by a UCLA head and neck surgeon, Dr. Christian Head, for $4.5 million.
UCLA commissioned an independent third party to investigate and write a report concerning racial discrimination after Head’s case was settled. While the resulting report was not a direct outcome of the case, UCLA’s choice to commission such a report after allegations of racial discrimination sends the right message: The university takes these allegations seriously and does what is in its power to address them.
Similarly, in the wake of the pepper spraying of protesters by university police at UC Davis during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests on that campus, then-UC President Mark Yudof commissioned the Reynoso Task Force Report to examine the decision-making by the police and university administration that led to use of force.
Moving forward, the university should commission similar reports by independent investigators to address the concerns brought up in settled lawsuits, such as Pedowitz’s. Doing so would demonstrate a commitment to preventing inappropriate action on the part of university employees without incurring legal penalties.
In cases like that of Pedowitz or Head, the University’s choice to pay out millions of dollars in settlements to put serious grievances to bed paints the UCLA administration as one quick with the checkbook and resistant to real soul-searching. Surely we can do better.