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Amiri v. Gupta

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Western Division

July 24, 2018

ALI AMIRI, Plaintiff,
ARUNAVA GUPTA, et al., Defendants.



         This case is before the court on the Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendants The Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama (“UA”), Dr. Arunava Gupta (“Gupta”), Dr. Takao Suzuki (“Suzuki”), and Dr. Patrick LeClair (“LeClair” and collectively “the UA Defendants”) (Doc. # 7) and the Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendant Dr. Nian X. Sun (“Sun”) (Doc. # 10). The parties have fully briefed the Motions. (Docs. # 7, 10, 12, 13, 14). For the reasons explained below, the court finds that the UA Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. # 7) is due to be granted in part and Sun's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. # 10) is moot as Sun is due to be dismissed from this action.

         I. Relevant Facts

         “A Rule 12(b)(6) motion questions the legal sufficiency of a complaint; therefore, in assessing the merit of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must assume that all the factual allegations set forth in the complaint are true.” Mays v. U.S. Postal Serv., 928 F.Supp. 1552, 1557-58 (M.D. Ala. 1996). Thus, for the purpose of resolving the Motions to Dismiss (Docs. # 7, 10), the court treats the facts alleged in the Amended Complaint (Doc. # 4) as true. The court also liberally construes documents filed pro se, such as Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (Doc. # 4). See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). The underlying facts of Plaintiff's claims are outline below.

         In August 2011, Plaintiff Ali Amiri (“Plaintiff” or “Amiri”) began a PhD program in physics at UA. (Doc. # 4 at ¶ 11). In February 2013, Amiri started his dissertation research at the Center for Materials for Information Technology (“MINT”). (Id. at ¶ 12). Gupta, who is the Associate Director of MINT, served as Amiri's research advisor. (Id. at ¶¶ 3, 12). Starting in the spring of 2013, Amiri and Gupta began having weekly meetings to discuss the progress of Amiri's research. (Id. at ¶ 29). In October 2014, LeClair began attending these meetings. (Id.). The weekly meetings of Amiri, Gupta, and LeClair continued through April 2017. (Id.). Amiri's research, which focused on a new type of memory technology, continued through June 2017. (Id. at ¶¶ 12-13).

         On August 15, 2013, Gupta began collaborating with Sun, who is the Director of the Advanced Materials and Microsystems Laboratory (“AMML”) of Northeastern University, on Amiri's research. (Id. at ¶¶ 4, 13). Afterwards, Amiri began communicating with Sun and Tianxiang Nan (“Nan”) about his research. (Id. at ¶ 14). Amiri alleges that Sun and Nan published an article that was based on Amiri's research and unsuccessfully attempted to repeat Amiri's work without Amiri's permission and without acknowledging Amiri in their paper. (Id. at ¶¶ 15-19). He also appears to allege that Gupta shared his memory technology designs and research with IBM without Amiri's permission and that IBM filed patents on these designs. (Id. at ¶¶ 20-27).

         Amiri alleges that in the fall of 2015, he had enough credentials to graduate from the PhD program. (Id. at ¶ 28). However, when he asked Gupta if he could defend his dissertation and graduate, Gupta explained that Amiri needed to do more research. (Id.). According to Amiri, in the fall of 2016, he attempted to get patent protection for his memory device inventions, but Gupta and LeClair refused to undergo the formal disclosure process in accordance with UA's patent policy and limited Amiri's access to some instruments. (Id. at ¶ 30). In October 2016, Amiri contacted Dr. Luoheng Han (“Han”), UA's Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, about his disagreements with Gupta and LeClair. (Id. at ¶ 31). After speaking with Gupta and LeClair, Han allegedly refused to allow further investigation into Amiri's complaint. (Id.). In January 2017, Amiri contacted UA's Office for Technology Transfer (“OTT”) to discuss possible patent protection for his invention. (Id. at ¶ 32). Amiri and the OTT had at least three meetings, but Amiri was unhappy with the outcome of these meetings. (Id.).

         On March 10, 2017, Amiri met with Gupta, LeClair, and another UA faculty member to inquire about ownership issues regarding the intellectual property for the memory device. (Id. at ¶ 33). Amiri did not receive an answer as to whether Gupta and LeClair had any intellectual property claims on the memory device. (Id. ¶ 36). On April 21, 2017, Amiri reported a research misconduct complaint to Vice President Carl Pinkert (“Pinkert”). (Id. at ¶ 38). Pinkert conducted a research misconduct investigation, and that investigation continued through July 2017. (Id. at ¶¶ 39, 52). Amiri has not received a copy of the investigation report. (Id. at ¶ 52). He alleges that Suzuki, the Director of MINT, and LeClair tried to stop the investigation. (Id. at ¶ 41). He also alleges that, at some point in June 2017, LeClair falsified Amiri's academic transcript by increasing Amiri's GPA hours from 44 to 50 so that Amiri's GPA would decrease. (Id. at ¶ 51).

         On June 17, 2017, Amiri emailed UA President Dr. Stuart Bell (“Bell”), Suzuki, and LeClair to report that somebody entered the lab in which he worked and “manipulated the research samples.” (Id. at ¶ 40). In response to Amiri's email, LeClair explained that Amiri is not (and has never been) the sole user of the lab, the labs are shared amongst students, and there was no intruder in the lab.[1] (Docs. # 7 at p. 6-7; 7-1 at p. 2; 12 at p. 33). LeClair also stated that he no longer considered Amiri to be a member of the research team because Amiri was not sharing data with the team or informing them of his progress and requested that Amiri return his laboratory keys and cease his activities in the labs and any MINT facilities. (Id.).

         Following LeClair's email, on June 20, 2017, Suzuki emailed Amiri an attached letter stating that Amiri was no longer a MINT student.[2] (Docs. # 7-2 at p. 2; 12 at p. 34-36). The letter also included a list of keys that had been provided to Amiri which he was asked to return no later than June 23, 2017. (Id. at p. 2-3). Amiri alleges that, on June 26, 2017, UA police came to Amiri's residence based on the document created by Suzuki but without a court order or search warrant. (Doc. # 4 at ¶ 42). The police officers purportedly demanded that Amiri turn over his keys to the labs and told Amiri not to return to MINT facilities. (Id. at ¶ 43). Amiri gave the officers the keys and asked them to “stand guard in front of [a desiccator].” (Id. at ¶¶ 43, 45). Amiri alleges that “another unlawful police operation was conducted by” UA police on June 30, 2017, but he does not explain what the “unlawful police operation” was. (Id. at ¶ 46). He only states that a police officer told him that Amiri had “been requested to leave.” (Id.).

         On June 29, 2018, the Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate School sent Amiri a letter stating that the Graduate School received a notification that he had been dismissed from the Doctor of Science in Physics program and that, based on the scholastic requirements of the Graduate catalog, he was suspended form the Graduate School. ( ¶¶ 48-49, p. 36). The letter also directed Amiri to the process for readmission. (Id.). Amiri alleges that he had not previously received a letter or email from the Department of Physics informing him of his dismissal and that he did not receive a hearing regarding his dismissal. (Id. at ¶ 50).

         On August 7, 2017, UA released the ownership of all rights associated with the memory device to Amiri. (Id. at ¶ 56). Since UA's release of this device, Amiri has filed three patents related to the memory device. (Id. at ¶¶ 57, 63). Amiri also alleges that in September 2017 Gupta, in collaboration with the other members of the conspiracy group, broke into Amiri's locker and stole eight notebooks, about two hundred pages of designs and calculations, and two flash memories. (Id. at ¶ 58). Amiri states that he reported this alleged theft to the FBI. (Id. at ¶ 59). He also states that he has written to and spoken with various FBI agents, senators, and congressmen about his concerns. (Id. at ¶¶ 60-62, 66-68).

         Plaintiff filed his initial Complaint along with an application to proceed in forma pauperis on March 19, 2018. (Docs. # 1, 2). On March 21, 2018, the court granted Plaintiff's application to proceed in forma pauperis and directed Plaintiff to file an Amended Complaint. (Doc. # 3). Plaintiff filed his Amended Complaint on April 11, 2018. (Doc. # 4). The UA Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on May 24, 2018, and Defendant Sun, who is proceeding pro se, filed a separate motion to dismiss on May 29, 2018. (Docs. # 7, 10).

         II. The Documents Defendants Attached to their Motion to Dismiss Are Central toPlaintiff& ...

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