MU sues professor in district court

Last week MU sued a professor over patent ownership.
Katie Currid / Graphic Designer

MU sued a professor and a former post-doctoral fellow last week over a seven-year intellectual property dispute about inventions created on campus.

The university system filed the lawsuit Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Kansas City against chemical engineering professor Galen Suppes and William "Rusty" Sutterlin, a postdoctoral fellow who was also Suppes' business partner in two businesses, Renewable Alternatives LLC and Homeland Technologies LLC.

The lawsuit states Suppes and Sutterlin both entered into agreements with the university in which the title to patents made in their work at MU belongs to the school and the school owns the right to those patents.

The complaint states even if Suppes and Sutterlin did not think the invention was related to their university work, they still needed to notify the university of it and ask the school to waive its patent rights.

Starting in 2001, it states, Suppes filed for 11 patents related to inventions within the scope of his work at MU and submitted altered disclosure forms that deleted the information which gave MU control over the patents.

Suppes flatly denied the allegations in the lawsuit, saying the inventor rights were assigned to him, as they were items he had invented for his companies without the use of university property.

"For the most part, what they're accusing me of is absolutely false," Suppes said.

Suppes said he filed a grievance against the Technology Management and Industry Relations Department over the dispute and the university filed suit to postpone the grievance hearings.

"To me, it's clear the main reason they filed the lawsuit was that they knew the grievance would be heard, and they feared its outcome," Suppes said.

The complaint said Suppes created Renewable Alternatives in 2002 and Sutterlin tried to transfer all of the intellectual property rights to his inventions to the company, which the school says violates his agreement with the university.

The patent at the center of the dispute is one for a process for turning biodiesel waste into a chemical called propylene glycol, which can be used to de-ice aircrafts and as a less toxic antifreeze in cars. The complaint states Suppes claimed he had the right to negotiate the transfer of technology.

After he continued to transfer patents, MU told Suppes in March 2008 he had no authority to enter into contracts on behalf of the university and threatened litigation.

Provost Brian Foster said MU is seeking an account of all the inventions made by Suppes and Sutterlin and all money the two had made from those inventions. He said the school tried to avoid suing the pair, but the benefits of the research had to be protected.

"No university official enjoys having to file a lawsuit against a faculty member," Foster said in a statement. "In my opinion, this lawsuit is a last resort to assure that the university's ownership of inventions made by university employees during their employment is protected."

Suppes said he was confident he could refute the allegations and that the lawsuit represented a larger struggle for intellectual property rights between faculty and the university.

"The faculty is a much greater part of the school than they are," Suppes said. "Most of what happens here happens because of us."

A phone message left for Foster was not returned. Sutterlin, now believed to be living in Tuscaloosa, Ala., could not be reached for comment.

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