" Cathedral of Learning " by Yisong Yue licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Judge Green-lights Norman Wang Lawsuit

On April 4, U.S. District Judge Marilyn J. Horan gave the green light for Dr. Norman Wang to proceed with his free speech lawsuit against three University of Pittsburgh officials.  The officials removed Dr. Wang from a fellowship director position and forbade him to contact medical students after he published an academic paper questioning the wisdom and efficacy of diversity programs in the medical profession. 

Pitt officials Samir Saba, Kathryn Berlacher, and Mark Gladwin moved to dismiss Dr. Wang’s free speech claim, arguing that they did not act on Pitt’s behalf when they removed him from his fellowship position.  The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center claims to be a private company, although it works closely with the public University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.  The officials argued that they removed Dr. Wang in their roles as employees of the UPMC, so the First Amendment does not apply to them. 

In response, CIR explained that Pitt and the UPMC are not merely affiliated, they jointly operate General Medical Education (GME) programs, including the fellowship program that Dr. Wang formerly directed.  All of the defendants work for Pitt in some capacity, and their work for it includes the operation of GME programs. Accordingly, punishing Dr. Wang was state action and violated the First Amendment.

Important Early Success

Judge Horan found that Dr. Wang successfully pleaded a constitutional violation. This early success is significant.  It opens the door to proving that the complex, interlocking relationship between Pitt and the UPMC cannot be used as a smokescreen to shield Pitt officials such as Saba, Berlacher, and Gladwin from liability for violating Dr. Wang’s rights under the First Amendment.  

Often, state governments work with private companies to implement public policy.   Judge Horan’s decision means that the court will look beyond the formal structure of the Pitt-UPMC relationship and assess how decision making actually operated in this case.   

Still at issue is the question of the University of Pittsburgh’s own liability as an institution.  Judge Horan granted Pitt’s motion to dismiss the claims against it but gave CIR leave to amend its complaint to allege additional facts showing that the decision to retaliate against Dr. Wang reflected university policy and was not simply the result of Saba, Berlacher, and Gladwin acting on their own.