Court of Appeals sides with UM System in decadelong intellectual property case

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The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld a 2017 decision Tuesday that found a former MU professor liable to the UM System Board of Curators in a decadelong intellectual property case.

Galen Suppes, who taught chemical engineering at MU from 2001 to 2017, had appealed the 13th Circuit Court’s 2017 decision that found him responsible for breach of contract and loyalty due to a patent application that Suppes filed without giving the curators ownership rights. In the decision, the jury awarded the curators $600,000 in damages.

The curators initially brought a suit against Suppes in 2009. The decadelong case involves a specific patent Suppes filed for his creation of technology to transform glycerol, a byproduct of biodiesel production, into propylene glycol, a chemical compound used as a food-safe antifreeze.

Attorneys for the University of Missouri System argued that Suppes’ technology that would transform the chemical compounds was created on MU property using MU equipment while Suppes was employed by the university, and, therefore, the curators could claim ownership rights, under the collected rules and regulations of the UM System.

When a UM System employee invents something, the person is required to disclose that invention to the curators and assign the rights to the university. Only after, if the curators choose to waive ownership rights, may the employee file patent applications, according to UM System regulations.

MU attorneys argued that Suppes had submitted at least 35 patent applications between September 2001 and January 2008 and that most, if not all, were for inventions Suppes failed to disclose or properly assign ownership to the curators, according to the appellate court’s opinion.

In his appeal, Suppes argued there was insufficient evidence supporting the curators' position he breached his contract with the university, a claim the appellate court rejected.

“To the extent that Suppes seeks to argue that there was insufficient evidence to show that Suppes breached his contractual duties to the University, this claim is without merit,” according to the opinion given by the appellate court.

Suppes also argued the $600,000 awarded to the curators for both breach of contract and breach of loyalty was excessive, and there was insufficient evidence to support the curators’ claim for damages. However, the appellate court ruled that the curators had adequately proven that it was entitled to royalties from the propylene glycol technology and had provided estimates on those amounts.

“The University presented sufficient competent evidence that the University suffered damages from Suppes not timely fulfilling his contractual obligations to the University because such actions hindered the commercialization of propylene glycol,” according to the appellate court’s decision.

The appellate court also found that the $600,000 award in damages in 2017 was much lower than the $3.7 million in damages the curators had initially requested and was not excessive.

MU fired Suppes, a tenured professor, in 2017 for reasons unrelated to the lawsuit, according to previous Missourian reporting.

MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright said in an email on Sept. 11, 2017, that Suppes was “not terminated due to his academic scholarship but because of his conduct toward students, faculty and staff, which violated the rules of the University of Missouri System,” according to Missourian reporting.

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