Lawsuits Against Universities

Graduate students in America live like ancient monks: they subside primarily off of stale noodles and rice, in constant fear that bureaucratic politics or the whims of their superiors will end their careers at a moment’s notice. They spend a little time researching and a lot of time inflating egos and toiling in drudgery, too overwhelmed with the full professors’ work to complete their dissertations.

Part of the problem arises from the nature of academia. As the eminent physicist Max Planck said decades ago, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” The old guard will also look unfavorably upon any threat to their intellectual hegemony; most graduate students learn quickly to think what they like but to act like everyone else, feigning unwavering support for their advisors’ pet theories. Part of the problem arises from the total absence of accountability in academia, and the acceptance across many disciplines that graduate students are unpaid laborers who can be terminated at will rather than grant-supported students who represent the next generation of higher education.

It’s not like the dismal state of graduate studies is a big secret. The creator of PhD Comics (a.k.a. “Piled Higher and Deeper”) makes a living out of lampooning it. Earlier this week an email at an Astronomy PhD program was leaked (more here at Slashdot); helpful advice for succeeding with a stipend of around $20,000 annually includes, “We realize that students with families will not have 80-100 hours/week to spend at work. Again, what matters most is productivity.” It’s not a recent problem; one widely circulated letter from a Chemistry professor to his post-doctoral researcher in 1996 warned, “I have noticed that you have failed to come in to lab on several weekends, and more recently have failed to show up in the evenings.” To many universities, graduate programs are a for-profit racket not unlike medical residency.

Unfortunately, there’s a certain segment of the population — comprised mostly of people who hold tenure of some sort, like full professors, federal judges, and prominent newspaper columnists — that believes graduate students are insufficiently obsequious and afraid, and that academic freedom is in great peril when a professor can’t destroy a student’s career for some sort of grave “fault,” like being a girl (despite Title IX). 
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Back when news broke of James Holmes’ shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado on July, I briefly considered writing about it.  As hard as it is to write about a tragedy on a personal level, I genuinely find the law interesting; unpacking the liability after an air show disaster or a sexual predator run amuck at a university is, to me, both challenging and rewarding.  I was quite busy last week, though, and frankly my heart was not in it, because the news quickly got the civil liability story correct, leaving not much to say. Bloomberg news summed it up not long after the shooting:

Law professors and practicing lawyers said liability questions would stem from any doubt about the safety and security procedures at the theater where the shooting left 12 people dead and 58 injured, or the university where the suspect, James Holmes, allegedly received packages of ammunition. Those inquiries are unlikely to lead to successful lawsuits because such cases require proving that a company or organization acted unreasonably, and knew, or should have known, about the danger posed, said Tom Russell, a University of Denver law professor and a practicing attorney.

The big obvious issue would be inadequate security claims against the movie theatre, which look like they could be a tough sell. No Court is going to make a movie theater strictly liable for every injury that occurs on their premises; the plaintiff will need to show some unreasonable conduct by the movie theater, like employees failing to call the police, or the movie theater locking patrons inside. As far as I’ve seen, the core allegation is that they left an emergency exit unlocked without an alarm — but I question if that’s  truly negligent.

Just to round out the other potential defendants, victims can sue Holmes, but it is pointless to do so: he has no assets and will be in jail for the rest of his life. Victims cannot sue the police or other first responders for anything they did, because they (rightfully) enjoy sovereign immunity for good faith rescue efforts.

Victims cannot sue gun manufacturers because gun manufacturers effectively own the political party that controlled Congress and the Presidency in 2005, which passed and signed the “The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act” (sponsored by Senator Larry “Wide Stance” Craig), a law that (wrongly) prohibited any lawsuit against the manufacturers or sellers for any injury arising from “criminal or unlawful misuse of a firearm.”

Victims also cannot sue Warner Brothers or Christopher Nolan or the like for the same reason the Columbine lawsuits against video game manufacturers were dismissed: free speech, the lack of any legal duty running from entertainers to shooting victims, and the criminal conduct being a superseding cause. Sanders v. Acclaim Entertainment, Inc., 188 F. Supp. 2d 1264 (D. Colorado 2002). 
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The Sandusky child molestation scandal at Penn State continues to be the biggest legal news in Pennsylvania. One lawsuit against Penn State and the Second Mile has already been filed, presumably because the victim was either nearing, or had already passed, the statute of limitations. A civil lawsuit can be filed at any point after a criminal act, though in that case the civil litigation is usually put on hold until the criminal case is finished.

I’ve already discussed most of the issues in the cases that could be filed by sexual abuse survivors in my previous post, linked above, but a new issue has started to bubble up: what happens to former football coach Joe Paterno, president Graham B. Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and university vice president Gary Schultz. Paterno and Spanier avoided criminal prosecution but were swiftly fired by the Board of Trustees for their roles in the scandal. (Technically, Spanier was given an ultimatum: resign or be fired, an effective termination that may have been given to Paterno as well. Spanier chose to resign.) Curley and Schultz were indicted for perjury and failing to report child abuse, after which Curley voluntarily went on administrative leave and Schultz retired.

Plenty has been written about the criminal prosecution about Curley and Schultz. As this Reuters analysis points out, prosecution on the failure-to-report-abuse claim might be tricky, but perjury is perjury, and it’s Curley’s and Schultz’s word against Mike McQueary’s over what exactly McQueary told them.

Outside of the criminal aspect, there’s an important civil litigation aspect just starting to gain traction, and that’s whether Paterno, Spanier, Curley or Schultz might have their own claims against Penn State. Consider this article about the PSU Trustees and Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law:

[Q]uestions arose about whether the board had complied with the state’s Sunshine Act, because there was no evidence of required public votes on the matters. So the executive committee – nine of the 32 board members – decided to hold a brief telephone conference call Friday morning to resolve questions and formally approve those three major decisions.

The changes in status for Spanier, Paterno, and Erickson were the result of the questionable handling of child-sexual-abuse allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, whose arrest came five days before the departures of Paterno and Spanier.

“Due to the extraordinary circumstances” during the week of Nov. 6, Penn State spokesman Bill Mahon said after the executive committee’s five-minute phone call, “the board of trustees needed to act swiftly and decisively regarding personnel. While the board believes immediate action was necessary [three weeks ago], it is holding this special, preannounced public meeting of the executive committee to reaffirm and ratify the board’s prior personnel decisions.”

He added that the trustees “wanted to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s.”

He said the firing, the resignation, and the naming of the new president were effective the week of Nov. 6. The full board will meet in January to “reaffirm” the action taken by the executive committee Friday, he added.

Even apart from the Sunshine Act, there are issues here worth exploring: what legal rights, if any, might Paterno and Spanier have against Penn State? I’ve seen news stories indicating that, at least for Spanier, they are “working out” a “multi-million dollar” severance package. Let’s look a little more deeply into that. 
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Read more about our sexual abuse lawsuit practice.

[UPDATE, July 12, 2012: The independent report by Louis Freeh’s law firm has been released. It is damning, to say the least, concluding there was a “total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” Blame is rightfully heaped upon Paterno, Spanier, Curley, and Schultz.]

[UPDATE, June 22, 2012: Jerry Sandusky was convicted on almost all counts. Reuters quoted me talking about the effect of the prosecution and conviction on the civil lawsuits pre-verdict here and post-verdict here. Short version: Penn State, as I had hoped, is signaling their willingness to settle the cases. As a legal matter, the Sandusky conviction acts as collateral estoppel on the victims’ claims that they were abused — establishing that fact conclusively in later proceedings — but that doesn’t mean Penn State is automatically liable. Also, as a practical matter, the Sandusky prosecution didn’t reveal as much about Penn States actions (or inactions) as the Schultz and Curley trials will.]

[UPDATE, March 2, 2012: The Bill of Particulars has been filed against Jerry Sandusky. A copy is available here. As The Daily Collegian reports, “eight of the 10 men connected to Sandusky’s charges were sexually abused on Penn State’s campus — in the Lasch Football Building, the East Area Locker Rooms and an outdoor pool.” That increases Penn State’s liability: in addition to claims that PSU failed to act on the reports it had, those eight men can all allege that PSU failed to maintain a safe campus by permitting Sandusky access to those facilities and allowing him to bring children onto the premises.]

[UPDATE, November 30, 2011: A previously unknown victim has filed a civil lawsuit against Sandusky, Penn State, and the Second Mile. A copy of the complaint is available here; it alleges the theories I described below, plus claims of negligent and intentional misrepresentation. There’s nothing wrong with those claims, but I don’t think they add much value. Intriguingly, the Complaint says the victim was 10 years old in 1992 — which means the statute of limitations turns on his birthday. If he turned 18 before August 27, 2000, he can’t use the 2002 amendments to preserve his claim, and will instead have to use other theories to maintain his claim, theories Pennsylvania courts have rejected in clergy abuse cases. That strikes me as profoundly unjust, and I reiterate my hope that Penn State and the Second Mile establish a compensation fund and try to work through this process amicably.]

Note: this post is long because it’s comprehensive, addressing:

  • the types of claims survivors can bring in a civil lawsuit,
  • the role of the statute of limitations, and whose claims are still within it,
  • whether or not Penn State is immune from liability under the ‘sovereign immunity’ doctrine,
  • the compensation that may be available (through settlement or jury verdict), and
  • the reality of sexual abuse litigation.

I’ve also written a couple follow-up posts under the Penn State Liability tag.

Pennsylvania and the nation has been shocked by Saturday’s grand jury presentation (essentially an indictment) of Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for Penn State’s football team, for sexually abusing eight children that he “groomed” through a charity for troubled young boys he founded, The Second Mile. Also indicted were athletic director Tim Curley and a Penn State Senior VP, Gary Schultz, for perjury and failure to report the abuse to authorities. NPR has a breakdown of key figures and the timeline. The Pennsylvania State University Board of Trustees has fired Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier over the scandal.

Lawyers writing about criminal indictments feel an obligation to remind everyone who might come across their articles that our legal system presumes everyone is innocent of the allegations made against them by prosecutors until they are proven guilty in court. Everyone — even apparent child molesters — is entitled to their day in court, so I’ll reiterate that here. My analysis of the civil claims below, though, presumes the accusations made by grand jury’s presentation are largely true.

It’s bad enough that two separate Penn State officials apparently tried so hard to cover up the sexual abuse that they got themselves indicted, but perhaps even more disturbing is how preventable most of the abuse was:

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Penn State officials had three opportunities to stop Jerry Sandusky from preying on young boys but failed to take action, state police Commissioner Frank Noonan said Monday at a news conference with Attorney General Linda Kelly.

“This is not a case about football, it’s not a case about universities_it’s about children who have their innocence taken from them and a culture that did not nothing to stop it or prevent it from happening to others,” Noonan said.

Two Penn State administrators are charged with lying to the grand jury and failing to report an abuse allegation. Kelly said Monday that Coach Joe Paterno was a witness for the grand jury and faces no charges.

In 1998, there was a police investigation in which [Sandusky] “made admissions about inappropriate contact in a shower room.” Nothing happened.

In 2000, janitors saw him performing oral sex on a child in the shower room, but they discussed it only amongst themselves. Nothing happened.

In 2002, a graduate student (and now an assistant coach there) reported to Paterno “fondling or something sexual,” which Paterno apparently passed on to school administrations. Nothing happened.

We like to think that a sexual predator could only molest multiple children over the course of years through methodical concealment of their crimes and intimidation of witnesses, but that simply wasn’t the case. This also wasn’t a failure of one or two people in a moment of weakness, doubt or cowardice. The whole system abused these children by enabling their abuser.

Consider this part of the grand jury presentment:

Schultz testified that he knew about an investigation of Sandusky that occurred in 1998, that the “child protection agency” had done, and he testified that he believed this same agency was investigating the 2002 report by the graduate assistant. Schultz acknowledged that there were similarities between the 1998 and 2002 allegations, both of which involved minor boys in the football showers with Sandusky behaving in a sexually inappropriate manner. Schultz testified that the 1998 incident was reviewed by the University Police and “the child protection agency” with the blessing of then-University counsel Wendell Courtney. Courtney was then and remains counsel for The Second Mile. Schultz confirmed that University President Graham Spanier was apprised in 2002 that a report of an incident involving Sandusky and a child in the showers on campus had been reported by an employee. Schultz testified that Spanier approved the decision to ban Sandusky from bringing children into the football locker room and the decision to advise The Second Mile of the 2002 incident.

Although Schultz oversaw the University Police as part of his position, he never reported the 2002 incident to the University Police or other police agency, never sought or reviewed a police report on the 1998 incident and never attempted to learn the identity of the child in the shower in 2002. No one from the University did so. Schultz did not ask the graduate assistant for specifics. No one ever did. Schultz expressed surprise upon learning that the 1998 investigation by University Police produced a lengthy police report. Schultz said there was never any discussion between himself and Curley about turning the 2002 incident over to any police agency. Schultz retired in June 2009 but currently holds the same position as a senior vice president with Penn State, on an interim basis.

Lest there be any confusion that Penn State had simply failed to grasp the severity of an ambiguous situation, the graduate student reported that he “saw a naked boy, Victim 2, whose age he estimated to be ten years old” being raped by Sandusky. That’s what the leadership at Penn State, apparently up to the University President, thought wasn’t worth bringing to the attention of the police, not even the campus police.

It’s hard to come up with the right words. Appalling. Inexcusable. As a trial lawyer, the word “reckless” jumps out at me.

The Legal Claims That Sexual Abuse Survivors Can Bring In A Lawsuit Against Penn State, The Second Mile and The Employees Involved In The Cover Up


Under Pennsylvania law:

The actor’s conduct is in reckless disregard of the safety of another if he does an act or intentionally fails to do an act which it is his duty to the other to do, knowing or having reason to know of facts which would lead a reasonable man to realize, not only that his conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, but also that such risk is substantially greater than that which is necessary to make his conduct negligent.

That’s from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion Hutchison ex rel. Hutchison v. Luddy, 870 A. 2d 766 (Pa. 2005)(quoting Restatement (Second) of Torts § 500), a clergy abuse which evaluated a jury verdict which included a one-million-dollar punitive damages award against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown after the jury found:

that the Diocesan Parties had knowledge that Luddy was molesting children; that they were negligent in their retention and supervision of Luddy; that they engaged in a pattern and practice of ignoring allegations of pedophilic behavior among priests; and that their negligence was a substantial factor in bringing about harm to [the plaintiff].

Unsurprisingly, numerous comparisons have been made between the the Catholic church’s handling of repeated child molestation by clergy and Penn State’s handling of Sandusky. (One terrible similarly is that the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is the diocese for Centre County, where State College is located.) In terms of a civil lawsuit by the victims against Penn State, like with the Annie Le wrongful death case against Yale, in every state I know of employers may be directly liable for the negligent hiring, retention or supervision of an employee who, through a tortious or criminal act, injures a third party. In these cases, victims’ lawyers tend to raise three separate claims:

  • negligence (for failing to protect the children; it’s more analogous to an inadequate security claim than an employment-related claim),
  • negligent supervision (for failing to oversee the abusive priests), and
  • negligent retention (for failing to fire the priests after the first incident).

Unlike with the Annie Le case, though, both the Catholic Church (sometimes including the Holy See, sometimes on the Archdiocese level) and Penn State didn’t have to predict that abuse might happen, they knew it was happening, did nothing to stop it, and took measures to cover it up. Thus, the priest abuse cases — and likely the Penn State cases —also allege:

  • vicarious liability (alleging the Church’s failure to report the priest to the authorities essentially ratified that he had been acting within in the course and scope of his job) and
  • civil conspiracy (for working amongst themselves and with the priest to cover up the abuse).

The latter two are unusual for your typical “employee who committed a crime,” but in the clergy cases, and potentially in the Penn State case, they’ll fit. That’s what Penn State gets for permitting the abuse to continue.

Here, there’s another claim, too, which might be the easiest to prove: negligence per se, in which a plaintiff alleges that the defendant violated a particular statute or regulation that was intended to protect like the plaintiff. That particular statute here would be Pennsylvania’s failure-to-report law, 23 Pa.C.S. Section 6311, which requires:

A person who, in the course of employment, occupation or practice of a profession, comes into contact with children shall report or cause a report to be made in accordance with section 6313 (relating to reporting procedure) when the person has reasonable cause to suspect, on the basis of medical, professional or other training and experience, that a child under the care, supervision, guidance or training of that person or of an agency, institution, organization or other entity with which that person is affiliated is a victim of child abuse, including child abuse by an individual who is not a perpetrator.

That’s the same law Curley and Schultz have been criminally charged with violating. There aren’t too many court opinions on the use of negligence per se claims against individuals and entities that failed to report abuse, but the two federal court opinions on the subject both permitted the claim in similar sexual abuse cases. Valesky v. Roman Archdiocese of Greensburg, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43857 (W.D. Pa. 2010)(citing Doe v. Liberatore, 478 F. Supp. 2d 742 (M.D. Pa. 2007)).

If Curley and Schultz are found guilty of violating the mandatory reporter law — which isn’t a sure bet, but which seems plausible — that will deal a heavy blow to Penn State’s best defenses, because there’s no doubt Curley and Schultz were acting in the course and scope of their employment when they failed to follow up on and report the abuse, and so Penn State is vicariously liable for their conduct.

Even if Curley and Schultz are found not guilty of violating the reporting law, and even if it appears that Penn State — apart from Sandusky — complied with all criminal laws, that does not insulate them from potential liability for punitive damages. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has already ruled that even compliance with detailed governmental safety standards “does not, standing alone, automatically insulate a defendant from punitive damages.” Phillips v. Cricket Lighters, 584 Pa. 179, 191, 883 A.2d 439, 447 (2005).

Penn State Is Not A State University, But Instead A “State-Related” University, And So Is Almost Certainly Not Immune From Liability Under The Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity


Some lawyers have presumed that Pennsylvania State University, as a public university, is immune from tort liability as an instrumentality of the Commonwealth under 42 Pa.C.S. § 8521. That’s not necessarily the case, however. Temple University, for example, is also a public university and is also part of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth System of Higher Education, but the Commonwealth Court held that Temple was not immune from tort lawsuits because it remains independent in its operation and is not classified by statute as an “agency” or as exercising “public powers.” Doughty v. City of Philadelphia, 141 Pa.Commonwealth Ct. 659, 596 A.2d 1187 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1991). That’s in contrast to the universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), which are immune. Poliskiewicz v. East Stroudsburg University, 113 Pa.Cmwlth. 13, 536 A.2d 472, 474 (1988).

[Addendum: In the comments to a followup post I wrote about law professors wrongly asserting Penn State was immune from liability, a smart “Guest” notes that Doughty was fact-specific to Temple University, and that the same analysis might not apply to Penn State. The commentator is right — Doughty is specific to Temple University — but there’s reason to believe Pennsylvania courts would not recognize Penn State as having sovereign immunity. In 1999, for example, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court firmly held “PSU is not an agency of the Commonwealth” for purposes of exemptions from real-estate taxation. Pa. State Univ. v. Derry Twp. Sch. Dist., 557 Pa. 91, 94, 731 A.2d 1272, 1273 (1999). I’ve cut and pasted the pertinent part of their reasoning to the end of that post. There’s every reason to believe the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would apply the exact same reasoning for tort liability.]

Further, as Jeff Anderson argues, if the Penn State coaches and administrators try to go down the sovereign immunity route by claiming they’re state employees and thus immune from state tort claims like negligence, winning that argument — i.e., the argument that they are state actors — can expose them to liability for federal civil rights claims. Civil rights claims are harder to prove at trial than negligence claims (here’s one of my posts discussing the difficulties of winning even an obvious civil rights case), but, on these facts, Penn State is going to have a hard time arguing they and their employees were not “deliberately indifference” to the rights of those children. They knew. They did nothing.

The State Of Limitations Might Have Run For Some Victims, But Not All, Due To Changes In Pennsylvania’s Childhood Sexual Abuse Statute In 2002


There’s a problem with some of the civil cases that might be filed: the statute of limitations.


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As a Yale alum, I was shocked and horrified by the death of Annie Le, a Yale School of Medicine student murdered just a week before her own wedding. Like the Petit family murders, the crime was just a depraved act by a stranger, despite attempts by some to downplay it as a “crime of passion” or “workplace violence,” as if any rape-murder were less evil if the perpetrator had delusions of attachment at the time of the crime or if they happened to be employed by the same company. She was targeted and it was murder; we know that from the guilty plea. It may have been sexual assault, too; Raymond Clark submitted an Alford plea to that.

Last week, just before the statute of limitations for negligence would run, Le’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Yale:

The estate of former pharmacology student Annie Le GRD ’13 filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the University in New Haven Superior Court on Tuesday, alleging that pervasive sexual harrassment at the University “emboldened” her killer, Raymond Clark III, who is serving a 44-year sentence for the murder and who the suit claims was hired through Yale’s negligence.

The complaint is here. While I can understand why the estate’s lawyers, Joseph Tacopina (Greenfield, who knows him, has a bit more about him here) and Paul Slager, want to tie Le’s death to the Title IX problems at Yale and thereby generally show university indifference to women’s safety, I don’t see that serving as enough of a factual basis for an independent legal claim. There’s no clear causal connection between Yale’s sexual harassment / sexual assault policies and Le’s death; as far as I’ve seen, Le never filed any sort of sexual harassment or sexual assault claim at the school, so it’s hard to claim that, if those policies had been better, she wouldn’t have been murdered.

Although there’s technically an inadequate security claim in there arising from the security of the building and the failure to search for Le, I don’t see the causal connection there: from all accounts, it seems that, if they had searched earlier, they just would have found Le’s body earlier, rather than preventing the attack.

The strongest claim is predicated on the hiring of Clark himself, and that claim has a bit more behind it and a much closer connection to her death:

The complaint alleges that Yale was negligent in its screening of Clark, who had shown “a violent propensity towards women” before he was hired in 2004. As police began to investigate his possible involvement in Le’s death in mid-September 2009, the New Haven Independent reported that Clark forced his high school girlfriend to have sex with him when they were students …

In addition to Clark’s records, the suit alleges Yale had access to information about Clark’s violent past because the University also employed Clark’s sister and brother-in-law as laboratory technicians in the 10 Amistad St. building where Le was killed. Those two employees were both “well aware” of Clark’s past behavior given their relationship to him, the suit claims.

This sort of negligent hiring claim isn’t novel. The primary case in that field is Ponticas v. KMS Investments, 331 N.W.2d 907 (Minn. 1983). It wasn’t the first, but it’s probably the most frequently cited, and it set the path for tort liability where an employer is alleged to have negligently hired a dangerous or incompetent person:

Liability is predicated on the negligence of an employer in placing a person with known propensities, or propensities which should have been discovered by reasonable investigation, in an employment position in which, because of the circumstances of the employment, it should have been foreseeable that the hired individual posed a threat of injury to others.

Connecticut’s appellate court has already adopted the same theory in Seguro v. Cummiskey, 82 Conn.App. 186 (2004):

A review of case law in other jurisdictions reveals that employers may be directly liable for the negligent hiring, retention or supervision of an employee who, through a tortious act, injures a third party. See, e.g., Island City Flying Service v. General Electric Credit Corp., 585 So. 2d 274, 276 (Fla. 1991)(“employer is liable for the willful tort of his employee committed against a third person if he knew or should have known that the employee was a threat to others”); Henley v. Prince George’s County, 305 Md. 320, 336, 503 A.2d 1333 (1986) (employer has duty to use reasonable care to select employees competent and fit for work assigned to them); Ponticas v.K.M.S. Investments, 331 N.W.2d 907, 910 (Minn. 1983) (“person injured by a negligently retained employee may recover damages from the employer”); Di Cosala v. Kay, 91 N.J. 159, 170-71, 450 A.2d 508 (1982) (“employer whose employees are brought into contact with members of the public in the course of their employment is responsible for exercising a duty of reasonable care in the selection or retention of its employees”); Soares v. Ann & Hope of Rhode Island, Inc., 637 A.2d 339, 346 (R.I. 1994) (recognizing “`direct liability of an employer to third parties who are injured by acts of unfit, incompetent, or unsuitable employees’”); Welsh Mfg. v. Pinkerton’s, Inc., 474 A.2d 436, 440 (R.I. 1984) (“employer may be directly liable for wrongful acts of its negligently hired employee”); J. v. Victory Tabernacle Baptist Church, 236 Va. 206, 208-209, 372 S.E.2d 391 (1988) (recognizing tort of negligent hiring).

Unfortunately, it looks like a hard sell for the Le estate.
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Few enterprises generate as much frustration among their suppliers and consumers as the scientific publishing industry. The business model is so unfair it’s comical:

  • Governments, foundations, universities and private companies provide grants to researchers for scientific research;
  • Researchers spend weeks, months, and sometimes years drafting papers based upon the results of their research;
  • The papers

Via Blawgletter (and a couple other sources), the whole eleven-judge Federal Circuit issued a rare en banc opinion that held, 9-2, that Harvard, MIT, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, and Ariad Pharmaceuticals, Inc. couldn’t, well, I’ll let Barry Barnett explain:

Ariad, MIT, the Whitehead Institute, and Harvard claimed that Eli Lilly infringed their patent on ways to reduce the symptoms of some diseases by causing a protein — Nuclear Factor kappaB* — to behave.  The problem (as Blawgletter gleans from the judges’ five opinions) arises from the fact that the inventors seem not to have figured out how to suppress symptom-causing NF-kB activity.  They appear simply to have discovered that NF-kB existed and guessed that somehow bringing it to heel would help sick people feel better.

Ariad, MIT, Whitehead, and Harvard urged that the first paragraph of section 12 requires a patent to say only enough to “enable” an in-the-know person to build something that makes NF-kB curtail its hurtful conduct inside human cells.

I knew some of the folks at those places were smart, but I never realized they were so smart they didn’t have to actually invent anything to get a patent. Instead, they can just describe a problem and then claim a patent over someone else’s solution.

To call the case “significant” is an understatement. Among those submitting amicus briefs to the Federal Circuit were:

  • The University of California
  • Federal Circuit Bar Association
  • Monsanto Company
  • GlaxoSmithKline
  • Microsoft Corporation
  • Google Inc.
  • Verizon Communications, Inc.

…and a dozen other schools and technology, pharmaceutical, and research companies who make—or pay—billions of dollars related to broad patents that claim to cover discoveries, but not necessarily inventions, in scientific fields.

The Federal Circuit, however, is even smarter still:

[A] separate requirement to describe one’s invention is basic to patent law. Every patent must describe an invention. It is part of the quid pro quo of a patent; one describes an invention, and, if the law’s other requirements are met, one obtains a patent. The specification must then, of course, describe how to make and use the invention (i.e., enable it), but that is a different task. A description of the claimed invention allows the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) to examine applications effectively; courts to understand the invention, determine compliance with the statute, and to construe the claims; and the public to understand and improve upon the invention and to avoid the claimed boundaries of the patentee’s exclusive rights.

[…]

Perhaps there is little difference in some fields between describing an invention and enabling one to make and use it, but that is not always true of certain inventions, including chemical and chemical-like inventions. Thus, although written description and enablement often rise and fall together, requiring a written description of the invention plays a vital role in curtailing claims that do not require undue experimentation to make and use, and thus satisfy enablement, but that have not been invented, and thus cannot be described. For example, a propyl or butyl compound may be made by a process analogous to a disclosed methyl compound, but, in the absence of a statement that the inventor invented propyl and butyl compounds, such compounds have not been described and are not entitled to a patent.

Ariad Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Eli Lilly and Co., pp. 12, 26.

Specific to the patent at issue,

The ’516 patent discloses no working or even prophetic examples of methods that reduce NF-κB activity, and no completed syntheses of any of the molecules prophesized to be capable of reducing NF-κB activity. The state of the art at the time of filing was primitive and uncertain, leaving Ariad with an insufficient supply of prior art knowledge with which to fill the gaping holes in its disclosure. See Capon, 418 F.3d at 1358 (“It is well-recognized that in the unpredictable fields of science, it is appropriate to recognize the variability in the science in determining the scope of the coverage to which the inventor is entitled.”).

Whatever thin thread of support a jury might find in the decoy-molecule hypothetical simply cannot bear the weight of the vast scope of these generic claims. … Here, the specification at best describes decoy molecule structures and hypothesizes with no accompanying description that they could be used to reduce NF-κB activity. Yet the asserted claims are far broader.

Thus, the patent was invalid.

The Federal Circuit’s opinion, though, goes much farther than the facts of the case, with a broad rule for future “discovery” patents:

Ariad complains that the doctrine disadvantages universities to the extent that basic research cannot be patented. But the patent law has always been directed to the “useful Arts,” U.S. Const. art. I, § 8, cl. 8, meaning inventions with a practical use, see Brenner v. Manson, 383 U.S. 519, 532-36 (1966). Much university research relates to basic research, including research into scientific principles and mechanisms of action, see, e.g., Rochester, 358 F.3d 916, and universities may not have the resources or inclination to work out the practical implications of all such research, i.e., finding and identifying compounds able to affect the mechanism discovered. That is no failure of the law’s interpretation, but its intention. Patents are not awarded for academic theories, no matter how groundbreaking or necessary to the later patentable inventions of others. “[A] patent is not a hunting license. It is not a reward for the search, but compensation for its successful conclusion.” Id. at 930 n.10 (quoting Brenner, 383 U.S. at 536). Requiring a written description of the invention limits patent protection to those who actually perform the difficult work of “invention”—that is, conceive of the complete and final invention with all its claimed limitations—and disclose the fruits of that effort to the public.

That research hypotheses do not qualify for patent protection possibly results in some loss of incentive, although Ariad presents no evidence of any discernable impact on the pace of innovation or the number of patents obtained by universities. But claims to research plans also impose costs on downstream research, discouraging later invention. The goal is to get the right balance, and the written description doctrine does so by giving the incentive to actual invention and not “attempt[s] to preempt the future before it has arrived.” Fiers, 984 F.2d at 1171. As this court has repeatedly stated, the purpose of the written description requirement is to “ensure that the scope of the right to exclude, as set forth in the claims, does not overreach the scope of the inventor’s contribution to the field of art as described in the patent specification.” Rochester, 358 F.3d at 920 (quoting Reiffin v. Microsoft Corp., 214 F.3d 1342, 1345 (Fed. Cir. 2000)). It is part of the quid pro quo of the patent grant and ensures that the public receives a meaningful disclosure in exchange for being excluded from practicing an invention for a period of time. Enzo, 323 F.3d at 970.

Id., pp. 28-29 (emphases added).

I think the Federal Circuit made the right decision both on the statute and on the policy—there’s a substantial consensus today that our patent system is unjustly overprotective in many areas, including biochemical research—but the decision is not without some costs. As the Circuit recognized with the “loss of incentive” part above, it was already hard for scientists to justify to non-scientist corporate managers or school trustees the value of basic research without referencing the financial upside of patentable discoveries. Now that will be even harder, since the financial upside is less lucrative and less secure.

That said, basic research progressed well enough for hundreds of years without the over-patenting we have today, and even a small increase in government funding could likely make up for any new losses due to reduced patentability. Thus, on the whole, the case is a victory for law and for science.


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Via Atrios, we have Stanley Fish’s recent NYTimes column, The Rise and Fall of Academic Abstention:

As recently as 1979, legal academics Virginia Nordin and Harry Edwards were able to say that “historically American courts have adhered fairly consistently to the doctrine of academic abstention in order to avoid excessive judicial oversight of