By Mark Terry
Carao was fired in February 2016. He claims it was related to his Parkinson’s disease, and that the company backtracked on accommodations it had made for his illness.
Boston Business Journal writes, “Meanwhile, Carao says, the Cambridge biotech was developing a drug for early Parkinson’s disease. The treatment, called BIIB-54, is designed to attach to harmful proteins that build up on nerve cells, and thereby prevent them from causing damage. The company completed a Phase I study last year and is currently conducting a 311-person mid-stage trial, according to an NIH clinical trial database.”
In court filings, Biogen has denied the allegations. They also argue that Carao’s disease is not a qualified disability and the accommodations he was requesting were unreasonable.
Carao began with Biogen in 2012, seven years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. According to the lawsuit, the disease grew worse over the two years he was with the company, which made it difficult to meet his work quota for customer inquiries. Biogen refused to adjust his workload. Boston Business Journal writes, “Carao also asserts that two of his supervisors became increasingly critical of his work once he began requesting accommodations and removed his access to certain systems that were necessary for his work.”
The company did make some accommodations, allowing Carao to work from home two days a week, but eventually changed his schedule and his ability to telecommute. He was fired in 2016 after being put on a “performance improvement plan,” according to the filing.
There have been several recent discrimination lawsuits against Biogen by former employees. In January, Jack Armitage filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in North Carolina alleging that Biogen stripped him of his duties as an associate director of Biogen’s manufacturing plant in Durham, North Carolina and gave them to a younger colleague. He was given a desk and a computer, but no responsibilities. After a couple days of that, he called in and said he wouldn’t be coming in to work until they gave him something meaningful to do. He was fired later that day.
Biogen has responded that Armitage was terminated because he contributed to a “toxic environment” at the manufacturing facility, “creating a culture of fear in which Biogen employees were afraid to contribute to improving operations at the plant.” They also point out that, while Armitage was 52, his replacement was 48.
Another lawsuit against Biogen is not quite as clear in terms of discrimination. A former senior territorial business manager, Danita Erickson, sued the company in July. In her case, she argues that her complaints and concerns about the company’s off-label promotion of a multiple sclerosis drug, Zinbryta, led to her firing. Her lawsuit is for discrimination and retaliation.
Erickson reports that in September 2017 during an Alaska business trip with her supervisor, she suffered migraines, which required her to reschedule some appointments, but was able to conduct all her business on the trip. But afterwards, her supervisor repeatedly queried her about migraines, even suggesting she find another job that didn’t require travel by air.
In the suit, Erickson claims things became much worse when she protested a colleague attempting to “get credit” for an off-label prescription for Zinbryta, a drug for multiple sclerosis. The colleague, according to the lawsuit, “learned that an Olympia hematologist was prescribing Zinbryta for an aplastic anemia Medicare patient.” The colleague then used a Zinbryta start form to get a commission and bonus for that prescription. According to the lawsuit, that involved “submitting false diagnostic codes” for the prescription.
Erickson didn’t get what she perceived to be appropriate responses from her managers, so she spoke with a company attorney and utilized the company’s corporate integrity hotline. That investigation, however, didn’t provide any results, and when the supervisor discovered the complaint, the lawsuit alleges, took retaliatory actions against Erickson. Then her position was eliminated.
Zinbryta was a problematic drug and was eventually pulled off the market over safety concerns. The drug was only on the market for about two years and carried a boxed warning about the risk of liver injury and other immune-mediated disorders. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) recalled the drug prior to that after 12 reports of serious inflammatory brain disorders linked to the drug.