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Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino’s $25 million lawsuit will face its first major hurdle, with a federal judge set to rule on the motions to dismiss her claims filed by the University and quantitative analysis blog Data Colada.
In October, the University and Harvard Business School Dean Srikant M. Datar jointly moved for a partial dismissal of the lawsuit, petitioning to strike down Gino’s accusations of breach of contract, defamation, and civil conspiracy to commit defamation — but not Gino’s claim of gender discrimination by the school. A month later, Data Colada motioned to strike down all of Gino’s claims, including the allegations of libel and conspiracy with Harvard.
In response, Gino’s legal team filed responses this month to have HBS and Data Colada’s motions struck down, contending that the facts alleged in the suit are sufficient to warrant the civil claims made.
Now, U.S. District Court Judge Myong J. Joun will weigh each side’s arguments and issue the first major ruling in the case — whether most of the claims filed by Gino will proceed or whether they will be immediately dismissed. Should the claims survive the motions to dismiss, Gino will be able to pursue discovery against Harvard and Data Colada to seek supporting evidence.
Gino — an HBS professor renowned for her research into dishonesty — was accused of committing data fraud by a series of blog posts this June by Data Colada. That same month, Harvard revoked her named professorship and placed her on administrative leave, and in July, she was notified that her tenure was undergoing review for potential revocation.
On Aug. 2, Gino sued Harvard, Datar, and Data Colada for $25 million in damages, accusing them of colluding to defame her and destroy her career and reputation.
Jack T. Sullivan, an employment lawyer for the Minneapolis-based law firm Dorsey & Whitney, said these motions are only the beginning of what is likely to be a yearslong legal saga.
“It is likely to be a monthslong process before the judge decides those motions,” Sullivan said. “That might be six, nine months — even more.”
By seeking to dismiss Gino’s claims against them, Sullivan said HBS and Data Colada are not specifically denying the facts she alleged, but are instead claiming that the behavior Gino accuses them of is not illegal.
“What the defendants are saying is, even if you take all of her allegations in the lawsuit as true, they don’t constitute a violation of the law when you apply the law to her allegations,” Sullivan said.
In Data Colada’s motion, the bloggers sought to dismiss all of Gino’s claims against them — “saying that none of the allegations against them meet that minimum initial threshold that’s required for the case to proceed,” per Sullivan.
If Data Colada’s motion succeeds, the bloggers will be removed as defendants in the case.
In their motion to dismiss, the Data Colada bloggers — Uri Simonsohn, Leif D. Nelson, and Joseph P. Simmons — claim the posts are protected First Amendment speech and thus cannot be grounds for a defamation lawsuit. The bloggers further argued that the facts alleged are not sufficient for Gino’s other claims.
Moreover, the Data Colada motion asserts that Gino’s status as a public intellectual means she should be treated as a public figure in the context of this case, which would subject her defamation claims to the legal standard of “actual malice” — a standard the bloggers argue Gino’s allegations do not meet.
Unlike Data Colada, Harvard is not filing to dismiss all claims. The University moved to dismiss Gino’s accusations that they committed a breach of contract, defamation, and civil conspiracy to commit defamation, but Gino’s central claim — that Harvard engaged in gender discrimination in violation of Title IX when handling Gino’s case — is not the subject of a motion to dismiss.
“Even if Harvard won everything that they’re asking for, it appears that count one would still go forward,” Sullivan said.
But declining to file a motion to dismiss the claims is not a concession, Sullivan said.
“They’re saying that the plaintiff’s allegations, as alleged in the complaint, meet a minimum threshold for that case and proceeding through the legal process,” Sullivan said.
Indeed, Harvard continues to deny Gino’s accusations of workplace discrimination.
“Professor Gino has raised allegations in her lawsuit and subsequent filings that Harvard vigorously and vehemently denies,” said Brian C. Kenny, a spokesperson for the Business School. “We believe that Harvard will ultimately be vindicated.”
Gino and her legal team maintained that all the claims in her lawsuit have a legal basis.
“Harvard’s lack of integrity in its review process stripped Prof. Gino of her rights, career and reputation — and failed miserably with respect to gender equity,” wrote Andrew T. Miltenberg, Gino’s attorney. “And Data Colada’s vicious take-down of Prof Gino is completely baseless.”
As the lawsuit progresses, new information regarding Gino’s potential academic dishonesty is likely to come to light. HBS’s internal investigation findings — a 1,200-page document produced after 18 months of investigation into Gino’s conduct — lie at the heart of this case, with HBS claiming the report proves “by a preponderance of the evidence” that Gino committed research fraud.
The 1,200-page report has been admitted to the case under seal, but various groups involved in the lawsuit have moved to make it public. The University has filed to make the investigation report widely available, and the New Yorker and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have intervened in the case and filed a joint motion to place the investigation on the public record. According to the New Yorker, high public interest in the case and the investigation’s status as a court document justify public access.
Gino’s legal team opposes making the investigation report public, filing a motion to keep the record sealed earlier this month.
Sullivan speculated that “at some long future point, whether that’s at summary judgment or at trial, the document would be available publicly through the court process.”
“Whether that happens sooner rather than later is going to depend on the outcome of these motions to seal the document,” he said.
—Staff writer Adelaide E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on X @adelaide_prkr.
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