Research veterinarian files lawsuit against University of Texas facility

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Research veterinarian files lawsuit against University of Texas facility

Dr. Brian Gordon says he was wrongfully terminated after speaking out against cruelty to research animals.
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May 30, 2017

Dr. Brian Godron says research monkeys at UTMB were denied humane euthanasia and allowed to suffer needlessly. Photo: Shutterstock.comIn March, Brian Gordon, DVM, DACLAM, filed suit against the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, Texas, from which he claims he was wrongfully terminated in 2015 for speaking on behalf of “animals who cannot speak for themselves,” according to court documents. Gordon, who worked as an attending veterinarian caring for UTMB laboratory animals, claims he spoke out about monkeys being allowed to suffer and die without the help of euthanasia during biomedical research.

According to court documents, the research lab, which mainly focused on the testing of diseases such as Ebola and the Marburg virus, was supposed to follow a specific protocol in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act (AWA): “The animals were supposed to be humanely euthanized once their condition deteriorated to a certain degree,” the lawsuit states, “and researchers had specified that death was never supposed to be an endpoint.”

The suit continues, “Dr. Gordon repeatedly complained about practices of veterinary care that did not minimize pain and suffering to the animals and otherwise do not constitute adequate veterinary care. Practices that do not minimize pain and suffering and otherwise do not constitute adequate veterinary care violate the AWA.”

Throughout his employment at UTMB, Gordon says in the court filing, he was “admonished for expressing his opinion related to animal care and safety at the facility and he was criticized for not being a ‘team player.’” After struggling with those in charge of the institution over the unreported suffering and deaths of the animals in his care, Gordon was terminated and cut off from the research laboratory completely, he says. For damages allegedly done to his reputation and finances, Gordon is seeking monetary relief of $200,000 to $1 million.

Recently, in an interview with dvm360, Gordon recalls when he was first hired. “It was already a fractured program,” says Gordon, who now lives in North Carolina. “They’d just fired their last attending veterinarian. In the last decade, they’d had over five attending veterinarians. Clearly, they had problems.”

What he didn't realize was that violations were occurring without his knowledge, he says. When the facility Gordon worked at was audited, much was brought to light—especially in regard to the veterinary care the laboratory animals should have been receiving. “It was a scathing audit,” Gordon recalls, “but my concern was with the veterinary care that these animals did not receive. The animals were just put in a cage and allowed to die.”

Gordon had other complaints about management of UTMB as well. “They hired an institutional official that had never once been in an animal facility and had no animal background—but still wanted to micromanage,” he says. “She vetoed veterinary care, which prevented me from being able to discipline the veterinarians in charge of the animals. She wrote me up once for trying to find a better place for monkeys—they wanted to put them somewhere that was below sea level and surrounded by water. When I brought this to the attention of [the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee], I was reprimanded for doing so.”

The official in question, Associate Vice President of Research Toni D’Agostino, is named by Gordon in the lawsuit along with the institution. Gordon says he would like two things to come from his court case: compensation and increased awareness. “I see a trend with veterinary medicine when it comes to attending veterinarians,” Gordon says. “If you want to keep your job, you have to do the wrong thing. That’s not how I am as a veterinarian. The attending veterinarians are supposed to consult with the other veterinarians on animal pain and suffering and that’s not happening.”

Attorney Daphne Silverman, who is representing Gordon, believes this is a unique opportunity to send a message to the research community. “It’s rare that a plaintiff like Dr. Gordon will come forward and it’s rare that an attorney will take it,” she tells dvm360. “These wrongfully terminated veterinarians don’t want to make waves; they want to go quietly to their next job. When you make waves, the industry knows.”

Gordon echoes these thoughts. “They’re being threatened,” he says of veterinarians who speak out against the treatment of laboratory animals. “I wouldn’t even say it’s subtle. Many in the field keep their heads down and I don’t blame them. I’ve spoken with many in similar situations.”

Attorney Chris Berry, who works with the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and is assisting Silverman with Gordon’s lawsuit, has worked on similar cases before. “In my experience, neglect is the most common form of animal suffering in laboratories,” he says. “Maybe people just don’t care or have become accustomed to the neglect and unnecessary harm done to the animals over time. But overall, costs matter and a lot of times we see corners being cut in order to minimize expenses.”  

Silverman and Gordon agree that the facility was ruled by those with money. “The guy in charge of all of the funding could basically do whatever he wanted or else he’d pull all of the money from the program,” Gordon says.

“When you hit someone with money, they change,” Silverman says simply.

This is Gordon’s second lawsuit against UTMB. His original case was dismissed in February, with judges maintaining that the defendants were protected by sovereign immunity and that Gordon had failed to address several required elements in his claim.

Silverman almost immediately appealed the case once it was dismissed. “We missed some things,” she admits. “I noticed this and drafted an amended proposition. It’s broader and states every claim. When I saw the glaring problems, I corrected them—but at the same time the judge was preparing a dismissal order based on the very order I’d already seen as inaccurate.”

This time around, Gordon says he has a better understanding of what to expect. “If I see anything monetarily, I’ll be surprised,” he says. “What I’d really like is to change what it means to be an attending veterinarian. They shouldn’t be the fall guy when something goes bad. Veterinarians are good people with good intentions. They want to make animals comfortable, reduce pain and stress—and they’re stopped by people and corporations that don’t have that in mind.”

Silverman says her eyes have been opened during this experience. “When you start getting involved in something like this, you learn stuff that isn’t open to the public,” she says. “I’m imagining that most of the human doctors benefiting from this [research] don’t even know.”

Gordon asserts that it’s possible for a research facility to be run properly—and for lab animals to be cared for humanely—but standards may be slipping. “There are good institutions that want everything run right—I’ve been through some of those place,” Gordon says. “I’d been through 25 years with no compliance issues until I came to Galveston. What I’ve seen over the years is change. I was part of a team that got to go in and work for the betterment of the animals—now all they want is veterinarians to be compliance officers.”

Berry, the ALDF attorney, agrees. “Dr. Gordon saw something that was wrong—in this case, monkeys were dying from diseases when they were supposed to be euthanized beforehand—and ultimately he was fired because of it,” he says. “It’s a sad lesson to take away, but it’s one that UTMB seems comfortable with constructing. When all is said and done, it’s my hope that veterinarians don’t need to feel afraid about speaking up when they see something wrong.”

“Caring for animals is the No. 1 priority for veterinarians,” Silverman says, “and that’s what Dr. Gordon is seeking. Most of the time, institutions pick someone they can control. If veterinarians stood up against this, I imagine that they’d have to tighten the enforcement of these laws.”

Repeated attempts by dvm360 to reach UTMB for comment were unsuccessful.