California Institute of Technology was sued by a former researcher, who claimed that he was terminated for exposing alleged misuse of government funds and research misconduct. He further alleged that Caltech tortiously interfered with his and his company’s business relations and breached contractual obligations. Caltech, on the other hand, argued that its actions were entirely proper in all aspects of its dealings with the government and that the DOE eliminated the researcher’s position by terminating funding when he failed to deliver on his commitments.
The plaintiff was hired by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to work specifically on a U.S. Department of Energy-funded project to develop more efficient batteries for electric vehicles. Once the project ended, the DOE terminated funding, which resulted in the elimination of his position (as well as those of other researchers working on the project). The plaintiff filed suit claiming wrongful termination, tortious interference, and breach of contract.
The plaintiff and his start-up company alleged that Caltech and a highly respected Caltech engineering professor engaged in wrongdoing, and sought more than $65 million in damages. Hueston Hennigan represented both defendants. Through discovery, we strategically positioned our arguments so that the plaintiff had to take positions that we knew would come back to haunt him at trial, and our own witnesses testified in a manner that buttressed what would become our trial themes.
Following more than a year of discovery, we moved for summary judgment and succeeded in narrowing the case substantially. The Caltech professor was granted summary judgment in full. The plaintiff’s company was likewise dismissed from the suit. Caltech was granted summary adjudication on 10 out of 12 of the plaintiff’s claims, entirely defeating his claims for breach of contract and tortious interference.
At issue in the May 2019 trial was whether Caltech had retaliated against the plaintiff for complaints he had made and whether it had wrongfully terminated him. Through a spirited examination of many high-level officials at Caltech, Hueston Hennigan demonstrated that the plaintiff was afforded every opportunity to complete his work, but instead would spend weeks at a time away from his lab, miss deadlines, and mismanage his team. And through a multiday cross-examination of the plaintiff, Hueston Hennigan poked holes in his testimony, further reinforcing the fact that the plaintiff was ill-equipped to lead the project.
Likewise, we convinced the jury of the falsity of the plaintiff’s claims that Caltech interfered with his ability to fund-raise, damaged his reputation, and caused a diminution in his company’s value. Instead, through several fact and expert witness examinations and cross-examinations, Hueston Hennigan exposed the plaintiff’s misleading and false statements to Caltech, investors, and the government and showed that this was just another way he failed to take responsibility for his own shortcomings.
Rather than merely defending against the plaintiff’s varied allegations, we put forward our own case on behalf of Caltech. We knew that the jury needed to hear the full story of how the plaintiff came to and left Caltech. Through our presentation of Caltech’s compelling, truthful narrative, which was backed by extensive documentary evidence, timelines, and demonstratives, as well as compelling testimony from credible witnesses, the jury was able to see that the plaintiff’s claims were without merit.
After four weeks of trial and just two hours of deliberation, we secured a full defense verdict for Caltech.
“Jurors questioned the credibility of the plaintiff, [and] believed the witnesses and the theme that Caltech at all times helped and did not attempt to undermine Dr. Roumi.” —Daily Journal
“[He] was unable or unwilling to put in the work to make the project successful, and the technology was difficult. Not every idea becomes an invention, not every start-up becomes a success.” —The American Lawyer
“Jury gives Caltech complete win over researcher’s claims,” Daily Journal, June 18, 2019.
“Shout-Out: Hueston Hennigan Beats Back Whistleblower Claim Against Caltech,” The American Lawyer, June 18, 2019.
“Jury rejects retaliation suit brought by scientist against Caltech,” Pasadena Star-News, June 17, 2019.
“Former Caltech Scientist Loses Whistleblower Suit,” Patch.com, June 18, 2019.