The Missouri Court of Appeals Western District upheld Tuesday the dismissal of tenured chemical engineering professor Galen Suppes.
Suppes sued the university after he was fired in 2016.
Tuesday’s opinion from the appeals court is the culmination of more than a decade of “administrative proceedings and state and federal court litigation between Suppes and the University,” according to the opinion summary.
Suppes had claimed his past legal disputes with the university over ownership of his patents and inventions partially played a role in his removal.
But the university argued that Suppes’ termination was not because of the litigation between him and the university but rather his conduct on campus.
Suppes’ conduct was reviewed and described in a report by the MU Campus Faculty Committee on Tenure in 2017. The report described a faculty member who harassed and intimated colleagues and students in addition to having a strained relationship with five successive department chairs.
According to the findings of the committee in the report summarizing Suppes’ conduct, Suppes was found guilty of the following counts:
Intimidation, harassment and/or bullying of students.
- Exploitation and/or coercion of students.
- Severe and habitual neglect of teaching duties.
- Insubordination regarding treatment of students.
- Intimidation, harassment, bullying and/or creation of a hostile work environment for faculty and staff.
- Intimidation and/or harassment of chairs.
Intentional violation of the university’s intellectual property rules and regulations.
- Insubordination regarding violations of the university’s intellectual property rules and regulations.
- Other misconduct relating to research.
MU leaders sent an email to the MU community in September 2017 emphasizing Stuppes was “not terminated due to his academic scholarship” but because of his conduct toward students, faculty and staff, which violated the rules of the UM System.
A sea of litigation
In 2009, more than five years before he was dismissed, the UM System sued Suppes for allegedly violating his contract by failing to release the rights to more than 30 inventions and 11 patents to MU.
But the origins of this dispute date back to the early 2000s, when Suppes and a business partner formed a spinoff company, Renewable Alternatives, which they hoped would help commercialize their work. Suppes previously told The Associated Press that MU failed to pursue the commercial prospects of his research in a proper and timely manner.
“The university has exercised incredible neglect in the handling of invention disclosures,” he said. “The MU tech transfer program is totally broken and basically beyond repair.”
According to the collected rules and regulations of UM, the system owns the rights to all inventions developed within the inventor’s scope of employment. When a university employee invents something, the person must fill out an invention disclosure form for the university, assigning the university the rights to their invention.
The curators claimed Suppes had filed for patents on inventions and assigned rights to outside entities without approval from the university.
If the inventor thinks the invention was made outside of the scope of their employment, the person can request a waiver, giving them the rights to it. Conversely, the employee is not allowed to file for a patent unless the university has waived its rights to the invention.
The UM System argued the technology was developed with university equipment on university property and thus belonged to the university.
A 2017 trial in Boone County Circuit Court ended with a jury siding with the university.
In that trial, the attorney representing the university pointed out 34 occasions when Suppes altered forms and changed or deleted language that would grant the system the rights to his inventions.
Russell Jones, one of the attorneys who represented the university, told the jury that “this was greedy, and this was wrong,” according to previous Missourian reporting.
Jones argued that greed led to a loss to the university of around $3.7 million. Suppes was ordered to pay $600,000 in damages.
The appeals court opinion highlights 10 points made by Suppes’ legal team regarding his dismissal. The court denied all 10 points.
In a footnote, the opinion states: “We caution Suppes about his litigious behavior now approaching the standard of frivolity that warrants sanctions should he seek to continue harassing the university and its employees over the same legal issues that have been finally resolved at this point on more than one occasion.”
Attorneys representing Suppes and the university could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.