Fishy business

Disabled UC Davis biologist charges universitywith discrimination, obstruction of research

Dr. David Ostrach and canine assistant sit next to the pond in Dixon where some of the former UC Davis research scientist’s striped bass have been relocated.

Dr. David Ostrach and canine assistant sit next to the pond in Dixon where some of the former UC Davis research scientist’s striped bass have been relocated.

Photo By Mike Iredale

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A disabled UC Davis fisheries biologist whose position was terminated in June after 21 years of employment has filed a temporary restraining order seeking possession of his research materials and plans to file a lawsuit alleging the university failed to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Dr. David Ostrach, a wheelchair-bound scientist who specializes in striped bass, claims the university allowed his research grants to expire, refused to pay for the special accommodations he requires and finally terminated his employment in June.

“The choice UC Davis is trying to give me is to pack up after 21 years of working for them, put my tail between my legs and, at almost 53 years old, go start a new career,” said Ostrach, who suffers from a degenerative disease that affects his joints. “I tried for over two years to deal with the disability policy and other issues in a polite, professional and respectful manner. The university refused to mediate, and since January has refused to discuss the issues, options and my requests for advice and assistance.”

“The university disputes these allegations,” said Sylvia Wright, spokeswoman for environmental sciences. “As they are the subject of litigation, we cannot address them more specifically.” She added that Ostrach was terminated “because his employment agreement ended on that date.”

Ostrach has previously tangled with school administrators. While working on his doctoral dissertation on striped bass at UC Davis in the mid-1990s, he says he was wrongfully dismissed from his position as laboratory manager. Although the university disputes the allegation, he claims his research materials were intentionally destroyed at that time, wiping out months of work. Ostrach says he eventually prevailed in the case, and finally earned his degree in 2006.

Now that he’s been dismissed again, Ostrach and his attorney, Larry Schapiro, plan to file an Americans With Disabilities Act lawsuit against UC Davis within the next 60 days. But first things first: In light of his previous experience, Ostrach wants possession of his research materials, namely a rare collection of nearly 300 breeding striped bass which he has developed over the last two decades.

“A professor not being allowed to take his research program with him from one university to another is unheard of,” said Ostrach. “I do agree that we currently co-own the fish, but it shouldn’t be anything that some paperwork can’t settle.”

Ostrach hopes to attain a position at Berkeley working with Dr. Tyrone Hayes, an expert on amphibian development. Hayes clarified what he believes is the UC’s general policy in regard to transferring a scientist’s research materials from one school to another.

“Technically, if someone leaves, the university can keep all of the data, equipment, grants and intellectual property,” Hayes said. “As a matter of decency, they usually don’t do this, and grants, projects, and in some cases supplies and equipment go with the scientist when they leave.”

To deny Ostrach full access to his fish “is sheer vindictiveness,” Schapiro said. “The university is out to get him because he’s making them look bad.”

However, according to UC Davis attorney Michael Pott, the fish belong to the university outright. When Schapiro filed a temporary restraining order seeking to preserve his client’s research in late June, Pott informed him that “The Regents currently own the fish at issue.”

Wright seconded that assessment. “The university believes that it owns the striped bass,” she said, adding that the school is “trying to determine whether they can be of value” to the school’s research or teaching programs.

Ostrach says the fish, some of which are 14 years old, weigh 20 pounds, and were hatched at a private aquaculture facility in Chico, are currently of no value to his ex-colleagues. In order to continue his research into the maternal transfer of pesticides in adult striped bass to their offspring, he needs full access to the stripers.

He first became concerned with the well-being of the stripers in late spring, when Dr. Raul Piedrahita, director for the Center for Aquatic Biology and Aquaculture, e-mailed Ostrach to say the soon-to-be unemployed scientist needed to personally pay for the care of the fish. “Failing that,” he wrote, “it will be necessary for you to move the fish out of CABA.”

Ostrach says the school reversed course after he contacted one of his elected representatives, 8th District Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada. She sent a letter to UC Davis chancellor Larry Vanderhoef, touting the intellectual value of Ostrach’s striped bass research, which has been published in such prestigious journals as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This is the only reproducing striped bass on the west coast of the United States,” Yamada wrote. “These fish are fundamental to continuing research on the Delta ecosystem, a significant issue in my district.”

Although the school denies any change in direction, soon after receiving the letter, it told Ostrach it intended to maintain ownership of the fish. In the same letter that informed Ostrach of the school’s contention that it owns the striped bass, Pott told Schapiro that Ostrach could schedule “a time to visit the fish” and would be free to observe them under supervision and offer recommendations for their care.

Ostrach is convinced the university is retaliating against him.

“There’s no doubt in my mind they’re doing this because they know the value of the fish to my research, because I stood up for my rights as a disabled person and because I’m filing a lawsuit against them,” Ostrach said. He said the accommodations he needs include wheelchair-accessible doorways, voice-responsive computing systems and a UC-employed assistant and cost between $20,000 to $25,000 per year.

UC Davis employs an official school policy of deferring disabled-staff accommodation costs onto individual departments. Schapiro likened the policy to a retailer—say, Macy’s—deferring costs of accommodating a disabled footwear specialist to the store’s shoe department. Schapiro claims the policy amounts to a violation of both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the mandates of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Again, because of pending litigation, the university could not comment on the case specifically. However, Wright noted that “We are obliged by federal and state laws, and UC policies and procedures, to make reasonable accommodations for disabled employees.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service lauds Ostrach’s work and has supplied grant money for his research in the past, with more funds pending. According to senior information officer Steve Martarano, “The Service has enjoyed a productive working relationship with Dr. Ostrach and we look forward to working with him in the future. The Service has a great interest in research on contaminant impacts to fish and wildlife in the Delta and will continue to collaborate with those who share our interest.”

Ownership of the striped bass is expected to be determined this week at the Alameda County Superior. The same venue will be hearing Ostrach’s discrimination lawsuit against UC Davis, should he press the case.

Meanwhile, Ostrach hopes to begin working at UC Berkeley as soon as late August. Professor Hayes, who studies the effects of pesticides on amphibian and reptile reproduction, looks forward to working with Ostrach, whose striped bass are among the only stripers untainted by mercury buildup, making them valuable as control subjects in contaminant research.

For now, most of the fish remain at UC Davis, although Ostrach has been permitted to move a dozen of the more mature fish to a hatchery in Dixon. He admits the situation has been trying.

“All I wanted is to come to work each day, contribute to science, the university and to work on important environmental issues facing California and the world,” he said. “This situation is a nightmare in progress.”