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Cancer researcher forced to resign sues hospital for defamation

The lawsuit was filed Feb. 13.

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  • | 3:57 p.m. February 13, 2020
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Former Moffitt Cancer Center director Dr. Thomas Sellers, who resigned from the organization for engaging in what the prominent facility called violations of conflict of interest rules in China, has sued the hospital for defamation.

The lawsuit was filed Feb. 13 in Hillsborough County Civil Court. Sheng Wei, one of the people involved in the Thousand Talents Program, the source of the alleged conflict of interest controversy, is also named as a defendant. Morgan & Morgan attorneys John Morgan and Brandon Scheele filed the lawsuit on behalf of Sellers. Moffitt officials didn't return several calls and emails seeking comment on the lawsuit. 

“Dr. Thomas Sellers is a renowned researcher who has dedicated his life to finding a cure for cancer,” the Morgan & Morgan attorneys say in a prepared statement sent to media organizations. “His reputation was beyond reproach, and he always acted in the best interests of the hospital. The complaint alleges that Moffitt Cancer Center wrongly forced him to resign, and then compounded the damage by knowingly making false statements against Dr. Sellers, causing severe damage to his reputation and career. This lawsuit is the first step in repairing Dr. Sellers’ sterling reputation so he can continue his life’s calling — ending cancer for good.”

Sellers left Moffitt Dec. 18, along with four researchers. Moffitt’s CEO, Dr. Alan List, who, like Sellers, is a nationally known cancer researcher, also resigned, in a series of moves that drew widespread media attention and comments from national and Florida politicians. The resignations stemmed from an internal review of Moffitt team members’ collaborations with research institutions in China; in 2018 the National Institutes of Health warned all its grant recipients of foreign efforts to influence or compromise U.S. researchers. Moffitt, according to a statement after the resignations, found several compliance violations.

“At Moffitt, we pride ourselves not only on our life-saving research and world-class patient care, but also on transparency and integrity among all our employees. This was an unfortunate but necessary decision,” Moffitt board chairman Timothy Adams said in the statement. The review focused on its team members’ participation in China’s Thousand Talents Program, which recruits global researchers and academics. The Florida Legislature has since announced a separate investigation into Moffitt stemming from the resignations.

The lawsuit counters Sellers wasn’t part of the Thousand Talents Program. “In fact, Sellers had been nominated for the program but declined,” the lawsuit contends, adding Moffitt has a video clip of Sellers declining the invitation to be in the program. 

The lawsuit also contends Moffitt was OK with its employees being in the Thousand Talents Program, and only forced officials to resign after the program began to catch “national attention and negative press and the FBI contacted Moffitt.”

“While Moffitt had good reason to conduct an investigation into the propriety of the Thousand Talents Program, they made an overzealous and irresponsible decisions to terminate Sellers, as part of a group,” the lawsuit states. “Sellers is a victim of the wholesale termination of the employees around him. While Sheng Wei and/or other employees may have engaged in inappropriate conduct, Sellers did not. Moffitt was concerned that if they did not fire every single employee who even had the appearance of being involved in the Thousand Talents Program, they would lose their standing with the National Institutes of Health.”



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