Salk Institute asks judge to narrow scope of gender-discrimination suit

A case brought by cancer researcher Beverly Emerson is scheduled for trial in California later this year.

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Lawyers representing the Salk Institute for Biological Studies went to court on 17 August in San Diego, California, asking a judge to narrow the scope of a gender-discrimination lawsuit filed by molecular biologist Beverly Emerson.

Emerson alleges that systemic bias at the institute, in La Jolla, California, limited her pay and access to resources such as laboratory space. The scientist, who filed suit in July 2017, also alleges that Salk’s decision to let her contract expire in December 2017 constituted retaliation. Salk disputes this argument.

Two other female faculty members who remain at the Salk, cancer researchers Katherine Jones and Victoria Lundblad, had also sued for discrimination. But they settled their cases with the institute on 6 August.

Much of the hearing this week in San Diego’s Superior Court centred on Emerson’s retaliation claims — and whether a jury should be allowed to judge the merits of that argument using an e-mail sent to Emerson in late June by Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, then Salk’s president. “Families have disagreements. But they don’t litigate their disagreements,” wrote Blackburn, who suggested that filing suit would be “ill-advised”.

Blackburn has not yet responded to Nature’s request for comment.

Salk’s lawyers argued that Blackburn’s e-mail was an informal attempt to resolve a dispute internally. As such, they said, it is legally privileged and should remain confidential.

The judge, Eddie Sturgeon, will decide by the end of the month on which of Emerson’s claims will go to trial. The case is slated to be presented to a jury on 7 December.

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