The basketball rivalry between Duke University and the University of North Carolina battle is legendary, but a federal lawsuit says the two elite institutions have agreed not to compete in another prestigious area: the market for highly skilled medical workers.
The anti-trust complaint by a former Duke radiologist accuses the schools just 10 miles (16 kilometers) apart of secretly conspiring to avoid poaching each other’s professors. If her lawyers succeed in persuading a judge to make it a class action, thousands of faculty, physicians, nurses and other professionals could be affected.
“The intended and actual effect of this agreement is to suppress employee compensation, and to impose unlawful restrictions on employee mobility,” Dr. Danielle Seaman’s lawyers wrote.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles expects to hear arguments Thursday on whether Seaman’s complaint should include all skilled medical workers employed between 2012 and 2017 at the Duke medical school, the Duke University Health System, the UNC-Chapel Hill med school and the University of North Carolina Health Care System.
Eagles could approve a smaller class instead, perhaps limiting the litigation to faculty members and medical doctors. The two medical schools together employ about 3,000 faculty members, the lawsuit said.
The judge also is considering a proposed settlement between UNC and Seaman’s team, which has experience securing major antitrust settlements from powerful companies. Her San Francisco law firm got $415 million from Google Inc., Intel Corp., Adobe Systems Inc. and Apple Inc., in 2015 after accusing them of agreeing not to hire each other’s best workers.
Seaman’s lawyers made this deal in part because as a public institution, UNC could invoke constitutional limits on federal lawsuits against states, and in part because UNC would be required to deliver a trove of documents, data and testimony supporting her efforts to win monetary damages from Duke, a private university in Durham.
UNC wouldn’t pay any money in the settlement, and would promise not to participate in any unlawful restraints on competition.
Both UNC and Duke deny the existence of the no-hire agreement that Seaman claims was reached by top administrators to allow promotions while preventing lateral transfers.
But Seaman’s complaint cites emails referencing the inside deal after an employment courtship of more than three years with UNC’s chief of cardiothoracic imaging ended in frustration.