Lab veterinarian sues Michigan university of termination

Lawsuit alleges university officials disregarded welfare complaints
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Oct 01, 2011

DETROIT, MICH. — Dr. Karen Hrapkiewicz, former clinical veterinarian and director of the Division of Laboratory Animal Resources at the Wayne County Community College District Veterinary Technology Program at Wayne State University, is suing the school, alleging she was fired in retaliation for protesting the university's laboratory animal practices and for her age.

Hrapkiewicz, 62, served as a member of Wayne State's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), as well as working as a full-time faculty member at the university since 1979. As a major research university, Wayne State oversees the care of about 15,000 laboratory animals at any given time, and Hrapkiewicz worked as an IACUC compliance officer there for the last 20 years.

"I think we all expect things to be handled professionally and when they're not, we get into issues like we have currently," says Hrapkiewicz. She declined to talk specifics of the lawsuit, but says, from a federal standpoint, veterinarians should be able to speak their mind and provide research animals and facilities with the standards one would expect.

The role of IACUC is to protect their well-being while allowing science to move forward, she says.

According to the lawsuit, filed Aug. 8 in U.S. District Court in Michigan, Hrapkiewicz alleges that the director of regulatory support at the college "routinely minimized concerns voiced by members of IACUC." An IACUC compliance officer at Wayne State voiced concerns about the director's actions, saying she feared WSU could lose funding sources and was putting the welfare of laboratory animals at risk. Hrapkiewicz and others sided with this compliance officer, who was soon removed from her post. The senior director for WSU's Division of Laboratory Animal Resources (DLAR) also was replaced around that time. The lawsuit alleges the new director mandated that issues be brought to her for discussion prior to IACUC meetings, a practice that the lawsuit claims "negatively impacted the effectiveness of IACUC as an oversight body."

The lawsuit states that Hrapkiewicz felt "increasingly uncomfortable with this method of 'censorship' and expressed her opposition to this restraint on her obligation to speak freely at IACUC meetings about the adverse conditions at various DLAR sites and issues involving the health and welfare of the laboratory animals used in medical research."

In the lawsuit, Hrapkiewicz alleges research rats were packed into housing rooms that were too small. There were cages stacked atop one another to the ceiling—so high fluorescent lights had to be removed—and housing room floors were sticky with urine and embedded dirt, the lawsuit states.

When Hrapkiewicz addressed her concerns to the new DLAR director and the regulatory director, the lawsuit contends the seriousness of the situation was minimized and the adverse conditions continued. Hrapkiewicz last inspected the facility in question on Feb. 24, 2011, and was fired without warning four days later. She was escorted from the university and told her termination was due to four cases of misconduct, but her requests for written documentation or verbal description of those offenses were allegedly denied. The lawsuit also questions changes to training protocols, eliminating hands-on training for investigators using animals in research.

Hrapkiewicz is asking the court to grant her reinstatement, lost wages, attorney's fees and punitive damages for her embarrassment and damage to her professional reputation.

Hrapkiewicz says she is open to returning to her former post, despite the terms of her departure "because she loved what she did."

A request for comment by Wayne State University's Board of Governors was not returned by press time.