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The Daily Tar Heel

Year in Review: Antitrust lawsuit added to UNC's litany of legal problems

This story is part of The Daily Tar Heel's annual Year in Review issue as we look back on 2015. Read the rest of the Year in Review stories here.

UNC has found itself at the heart of another lawsuit, this one alleging a violation of federal antitrust laws.

In August, Dr. Danielle Seaman, associate professor of radiology at Duke University School of Medicine, filed a class-action lawsuit against Duke University, Duke University Health System and Dr. William Roper, dean of the UNC School of Medicine. 

While UNC and UNC Health are not named as defendants in the suit, their involvement in the proceedings may not be finished — thanks to a legal placeholder included in Seaman’s original complaint that allows her to add defendants as the case proceeds.

The suit alleges a no-hire agreement between the deans of the UNC and Duke Schools of Medicine. According to Seaman’s complaint, she was denied a teaching position at UNC School of Medicine despite being qualified and assured by the chief of cardiothoracic imaging she would “fit in nicely with (the) cardiothoracic imaging group at Carolina.”

Daniel Crane, professor at the University of Michigan School of Law, said if the agreement exists, it would constitute an antitrust violation, in which case Seaman could seek one of two remedies: damages or an injunction that ends the purported misconduct. 

“All workers have the right to be paid according to a competitive marketplace for their talent, and that includes faculty members and other skilled medical professionals,” said Dean Harvey, an attorney with Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein LLP, the firm handling Seaman’s case. 

On Oct. 15, defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case, claiming state-action immunity. According to the brief filed by Roper, at least in the context of the no-hire agreement, UNC — and those entities doing business with UNC — acted within its rights as a state actor and is not subject to litigation.

"Anticompetitive conduct by UNC was exempt from the Sherman Act under the doctrine of state-action immunity because UNC is a state representative that acts for the state of North Carolina in its sovereign capacity. That decision governs here, and Dr. Seaman's claims therefore fail as a matter of law," according to the brief filed by Roper.

Seaman will need to file her response by Nov. 30, after which the case will proceed to the fact-finding stage of litigation. During that time, the judge can require UNC and Duke to produce key witnesses and turn over relevant evidence, including emails.

Crane said while it might be reasonable for Roper, Duke University and Duke University Health System to seek immunity on these grounds, the motion is flawed.

"I would be very surprised if that applies in a basically collusion context, where a state hospital and a private entity are engaging in conduct which would otherwise be illegal under antitrust laws, and one of them says, 'Well, because the other one is allowed to do it, I get immunity as well,' — I do not believe that is the law," he said.

Such a motion can be expected in such lawsuits — during this stage of litigation, defendants come up with any argument they can to get a case dismissed from court.

"It's difficult to say whether a motion will be successful," Crane said. "I do think there are vulnerabilities on this motion in the position laid out — we'll see in the response from the plaintiffs."

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