Doctor Among 25 Whistleblowers Sued in California COVID-19 Lab Scandal

On February 22, the Laboratory Field Services Division of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) “found significant deficiencies in the Valencia Branch Laboratory during an initial routine inspection that occurred in early December,” according to a California Health and Human Services Agency press release. The press release states that PerkinElmer, the “major diagnostics company” with which the California government partnered with to create a $25 million facility for COVID testing, “was provided the deficiencies on February 19, 2021, and has until March 1, 2021, to formally respond with how it has addressed or plans to address the laboratory’s initial challenges.”

The CDPH investigation follows whistleblower complaints from individuals who alleged in early February of 2021 that there was mismanagement and misconduct in the lab. Shortly after the whistleblowers came forward in the CBS13 article, CDPH announced that the state was launching an investigation into the whistleblowers’ allegations. California lawmakers also expressed anger over the allegations, with California State Senator Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore) writing in a press release that the allegations were “downright shameful.” 

The CDPH press release also states that “PerkinElmer is confident these deficiencies will be quickly remedied to avoid any impact on the laboratory’s license.” According to the press release, the laboratory in Valencia “is seeking accelerated accreditation through the College of American Pathologists (CAP), a third-party entity, so that Californians have no doubt about the quality of the services at the laboratory.”

“PerkinElmer remains confident in our continued positive impact, operating the highest quality laboratory to serve California residents,” said Prahlad Singh, PerkinElmer’s president and chief executive officer. 

However, a new development has added another element to this story. On February 24, CBS13 Investigates, the same news outlet that broke the news about the laboratory whistleblowers’ complaints, reported that PerkinElmer is “effectively suing a whistleblower who spoke to CBS13 and indicating it may sue others.” 

CBS13 states that most of the whistleblowers mentioned in the initial article wanted to remain anonymous but one whistleblower and former lab manager Dr. Manahz Salem “agreed to show her face.” Dr. Salem “confirmed the allegations” of the other whistleblowers to CBS13. “I really want the public to know that this lab should not continue operating like this,” Dr. Salem said.

PerkinElmer filed a lawsuit against Dr. Salem “along with 25 other unnamed defendants who they can choose to name later,” CBS13 reported. 

PerkinElmer’s lawsuit claims that Dr. Salem “emailed herself proprietary information in violation of a confidentiality agreement, alleging she, and the unnamed defendants, are using ‘proprietary information to PerkinElmer’s competitive disadvantage.’” For Dr. Salem specifically, the lawsuit alleged that she “took trade secrets and accepted a job with a competitor.” PerkinElmer accuses the other whistleblowers of being “responsible in some manner for the (same) actions or inactions,” CBS13 reports. However, “the lawsuit acknowledges PerkinElmer doesn’t know who the other defendants are.” Whistleblowers maintain that “the documents revealed in the CBS13 investigation are of no value to PerkinElmer’s competitors” but, rather, work to inform the public about health risks associated with the alleged lab practices.

When CBS13 asked CPDH if they support PerkinElmer’s lawsuit and if the agency “will allow PerkinElmer to sue employees who filed whistleblower complaints,” the agency responded that it is “reviewing the lawsuit and has no further comments.”

A company filing a lawsuit against a whistleblower is an extremely threatening decision that no doubt has a chilling effect on other potential whistleblowers who might want to come forward and make disclosures. Companies should encourage whistleblowers to come forward and do the right thing in speaking out, but threatening legal action against employees who want to expose wrongdoing is harmful to fostering a work environment in which employees feel comfortable speaking out when they see misconduct.

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