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Thakur v. Betzig

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

October 17, 2017

MRINAL THAKUR, Plaintiff,
v.
ERIC BETZIG, et. al., Defendants,

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TERRY F. MOORER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This action is assigned to the undersigned magistrate judge to conduct all proceedings and order entry of judgment by consent of all the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). See Docs. 24, 25. Now pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss and brief in support (Docs. 12-13, filed December 5, 2016). After a careful review of all the written pleadings, motions, responses, and replies, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's alternative requests (Docs. 20 and 29) that the case be severed and transferred to the more appropriate venues in the Northern District of California and District of Maryland pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). The motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(2) (Doc. 12) is DENIED as moot. Any remaining motions including the remaining portion of the motion to dismiss for 12(b)(6) (Doc. 12) remain pending for the determination of the transferee courts.

         I. Jurisdiction

         Plaintiff asserts claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 (diversity jurisdiction). Specifically, that the citizenship of all parties is diverse and the amount in controversy exceeds $75, 000.00. He asserts state law claims for (1) fraud and suppression, (2) Negligence, (3) Wantonness, (4) Negligent and/or Wanton Training, Supervision, and Monitoring, (5) Unjust Enrichment, and (6) Conversion. See Doc. 1. No party contests subject matter and adequate support exists for its determination. Defendants all contest personal jurisdiction and is the basis for the subject motion. See Docs. 12-13.

         II. Parties and Background

         Plaintiff is Mrinal Thakur (“Thakur” or “Plaintiff”) is an individual who resides in Auburn, Alabama. Doc. 1 at ¶ 1. Plaintiff is a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Auburn University and is the Director of Photonic Materials Research Laboratory at the university. Id. at ¶ 7. Plaintiff is the co-inventor of electrically conductive polymers and has several patents and publications related to nonconjugated conductive polymers. Id. On October 7, 2016, Plaintiff filed suit in this court alleging that Defendants Eric Betzig (“Betzig”), Howard Hughes Medical Institute (“HHMI”), William E. Moerner (“Moerner”), and Stanford University (“Stanford”) - collectively “Defendants” - wrongfully plagiarized, misappropriated, stole, and otherwise utilized Plaintiff's work product to obtain the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the development of super-resolution fluorescence microscopy. See Id. generally. Plaintiff asserts claims for (1) fraud and suppression, (2) negligence, (3) wantonness, (4) negligent and/or wanton training, supervision and monitoring, (5) unjust enrichment, and (6) conversion. Id. at ¶¶ 13-38.

         Defendants Betzig and Moerner received the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Betzig resides in Ashburn, Virginia and HHMI “employed Defendant Betzig as a scientist at its Jenelia Research Campus and reaped the benefits of Defendant Betzig's actions and conduct.” Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 2-3. HHMI is a corporation with its principal place of business in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Id. Moerner resides in Palo Alto, California and Stanford University “employed Defendant Moerner as a scientist and reaped the benefits of his actions and conduct.” Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 4-5. Stanford is an educational institution doing business as a corporation whose principal place of business is Palo Alto, California. Id.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell and William E. Moerner for discovery of “Super-Resolved Fluorescence Microscopy”. The resolution in this microscopy transitions beyond standard limits (Abbe's limit). Therefore, smaller structures within a fluorescent organic material can be detected.
A major approach used in this microscopy that utilizes lasers with short-duration (femtosecond) pulses, is based on third order (nonlinear) optical effects in organic materials. The earliest detailed third order optical studies on organic crystals were initiated by Professor Mrinal Thakur and colleagues back in 1985 - more than ten years earlier than the first report of a successful demonstration of super-resolved microscopy by the 2014 Nobel recipients.
The central correlation governing the line-width (resolution) controllably decreasing with laser light intensity is given in equation 3 of the 2014 Nobel document preserved at the Nobel Foundation website. This equation shows that detectable radiation (line-width) can go beyond Abbe's limit if higher light intensity is used. This equation is based on saturation dynamics in third order optics, in particular in this case, involving fluorescence of organic dye molecules (stimulated emission depletion). A derivation of this equation using the theory and experiments previously published by Thakur et al. has been recently published in the Journal of Macrornolecular Science, Part A, Pure and Applied Chemistry. This is a refereed journal in which scientific reports are not accepted without expert reviews.
It is important to note that no derivation of equation 3 was given by the Nobel Prize recipients in their published articles. In some of their publications other equations based on kinetics studies have been developed but those are different and inaccurate. The equation 3 as given in the Nobel document is correct and can only be derived using the theoretical mode' (phase-space filling) for nonlinear Optics in organic materials as developed and experimentally verified by Professor Thakur and colleagues. While there are other approaches discussed in the document for achieving super-resolution, equation 3 provides the only systematic and reliable procedure to gain super-resolution by increasing laser light intensity at selected wavelengths. Therefore, understanding the origin of this equation is critical. As given in Professor Thakur's recent article, this equation can be derived in a fairly straight-forward manner using the basic equation in phase-space filling model on nonlinear optics published about 10 years earlier than the publications on demonstration of super-resolution.
Professor Thakur and colleagues published and presented hundreds of articles on experiments and theory of nonlinear optical properties of organic crystals and films, in highly reputed journals and conferences (e.g. Physical Review Letters, Applied Physics Letters, Macromolecules, Journal of Materials Science, MRS Proceedings and others) beginning on around 1985. Thus, the nonlinear optical coefficients, excited-state lifetimes and the detailed saturation dynamics and their quantitative interpretations have all been established prior to the works on super-resolved fluorescence microscopy. This microscopy would not be possible to demonstrate without the in-depth knowledgebase established by Professor Thakur and colleagues.

Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 8-12.

         The crux of the allegations against the individual defendants (Betzig and Moerner) rests on the assertion that they had a duty to represent and/or disclose that they utilized Plaintiff's work product in the development of super-resolution fluorescence microscopy - which ultimately enabled them to receive the Nobel Prize. Rather, Plaintiff alleges Betzig and Moerner falsely represented to the Nobel Prize Committee that no one else's work product was utilized in developing their research and specifically suppressed that Plaintiff's work product was utilized. Id. at ¶¶ 14-18 (Count 1 - Fraud and Suppression). Moreover, Betzig and Moerner had a duty to reveal they utilized Thakur's work product and breached that duty by concealing their use of the work. Id. at ¶¶ 19-22 (Count 2 - Negligence). Finally, Betzig and Moerner wantonly, recklessly, knowingly, and purposefully misappropriate Plaintiff's work product. Id. at ¶¶ 23-25 (Count 3 - Wantonness).

         The allegations against the corporate defendants (Stanford and HHMI) stem from their employment and supervision of the individual defendants. Specifically, HHMI and Stanford negligently and/or wantonly failed to properly train, supervise, and/or monitor Betzig and Moerner. Id. at ¶¶ 26-29 (Count 4 - Negligent and/or Wanton Training, Supervision and Monitoring). As a result, they inequitably benefitted from the individual defendants' actions. Id. at ¶¶ 30-34.

         Finally, all Defendants converted for their own use - illegally and unlawfully - work product created and developed by Plaintiff which was his intellectual property. The conversion was wanton and done without the knowledge or consent of Thakur. Id. at ¶¶ 35-38. For damages, Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages plus costs.

         On December 5, 2016, Defendants filed their collective Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction and for Failure to State a Claim. Docs. 12-13. They assert that (a) the Court lacks personal jurisdiction over Defendants, (b) the Complaint fails to comply with minimal pleading standards, (c) Counts 1-2 of the complaint fail to allege that he relied on any alleged misrepresentation, and (d) the wantonness, unjust enrichment, and conversion claims are all displaced by the Alabama Trade Secrets Act.

         On December 29, 2016, Plaintiff submitted his response in opposition, alleging that this Court does have personal jurisdiction, or alternatively, if it does not, can transfer the case to an appropriate venue where jurisdiction will not be a contested issue. Doc. 20. If transferred then the remaining issues would be left for resolution by the gaining court. Plaintiff specifically requests that the case be ...


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