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Taleyarkhan v. Purdue University

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division, Lafayette

September 29, 2014



JAMES T. MOODY, District Judge.


Plaintiff Rusi P. Taleyarkhan claims that, in 2002, he led a team of scientific researchers in the discovery of sonofusion (often referred to as "bubblefusion"), a discovery that was highly significant because it marked the breaking of the fusion barrier for the first time in world history. (DE # 103-1 at 3-4.) The results of plaintiff's experiments, which were conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, were published in the prestigious Science magazine that same year. ( Id. )

In 2003, plaintiff was recruited to work for defendant Purdue University by the then-head of the School of Nuclear Engineering, Lefteri Tsoukalas. In 2005, plaintiff was awarded a grant from the Office of Naval Research ("ONR") to fund attempts at replicating the experiments.[2] Also in 2005, several papers were published by Yiban Xu and Adam Butt, other scientists at Purdue, claiming to support plaintiff's previous research. (DE # 103-1 at 28.) The collaboration between plaintiff and Tsoukalas eventually broke down and Tsoukalas began calling plaintiff's sonofusion research into question.

In February of 2006, Tsoukalas convened a fact-finding committee (the "Tsoukalas Inquiry Committee") to look into potential research misconduct on the part of plaintiff. (DE # 103-1 at 29; DE # 97-2 at 5.) Plaintiff argues that Tsoukalas did so without properly informing plaintiff or university authorities as required by university policy. (DE # 103-1 at 7.) The Tsoukalas Inquiry Committee completed a report in February 2006 suggesting improper behavior on the part of plaintiff. (DE # 103-1 at 29; DE # 97-2 at 5.) However, defendant claims that it took no action against plaintiff as a result of the Tsoukalas Inquiry, because the committee was established in violation of university protocol. (DE # 97-2 at 5.) Plaintiff claims that as a result of Tsoukalas's inquiry, he experienced the loss of a lecture course, denial of post-doctoral hires and reappointments, the refusal of defendant to submit proposals to the government, and removal of his information from the university webpage. (DE # 103-1 at 30.)

Tsoukalas also criticized plaintiff's research to the press, which plaintiff claims violated Purdue policy. (DE # 103-1 at 7.) On March 8, 2006, the science magazine Nature published an article about the dissidence between Tsoukalas and plaintiff with regard to sonofusion research. (DE # 97-2 at 5; DE # 103-1 at 7.) In response to the controversy and the Nature article, defendant convened an ad hoc committee (the "Ad Hoc Committee"). (DE # 97-2 at 5.) The committee recommended further study of the experimental methods used by plaintiff and a determination of whether faculty engaged in nonprofessional actions. (DE # 97-2 at 6.)

Tsoukalas lost his post as head of the School of Nuclear Engineering in August 2006. (DE # 97-12 at 3.) Plaintiff alleges that this was because Tsoukalas was found to have violated university policies with regard to the initiation of the Tsoukalas Inquiry Committee; however, according to plaintiff, defendant declared that Tsoukalas was voluntarily stepping down, publicly supporting his image and standing in the academic community. (DE # 103-1 at 28.) The Dean of the College of Engineering, Leah Jamieson, named Dr. Vincent Bralts as Tsoukalas's successor. (DE # 97-2 at 3-4.)

In September of 2006, Tsoukalas and another doctor, Dr. Bertodano, made allegations of research misconduct against plaintiff to Dean Jamieson. (DE # 97-2 at 6.) According to plaintiff, these allegations were the brainchild of Purdue's Vice-President of Research, Dr. Rutledge, who invited Tsoukalas and Bertodano to submit the allegations. (DE # 103-1 at 8.) At this time, an inquiry committee (the "2006 Inquiry Committee") was formed by Dean Jamieson. (DE # 97-2 at 7.) This committee had one Indian member out of three total. (DE # 103-1 at 10.) On December 15, 2006, the 2006 Inquiry Committee found insufficient evidence to conclude that a further investigative committee should be formed to pursue the allegations of research misconduct brought up by Tsoukalas and Bertodano. (DE # 103-1 at 8; DE # 97-2 at 7.) On February 7, 2007, defendant issued a press release sharing the committee's conclusion. (DE # 103-1 at 9.)

In March 2007, United States Congressman Brad Miller of North Carolina urged defendant to renew its investigation into plaintiff. (DE # 103-1 at 10; DE # 97-2 at 8.) ONR Inspector General, Holly Adams, was also involved in this renewed investigation in an oversight capacity. (DE # 103-1 at 10; DE # 97-2 at 8.) After this, another inquiry committee was formed (the "2007 Inquiry Committee"). (DE # 103-1 at 10.) This committee had no Indian members out of five total. ( Id. at 10.) The 2007 Inquiry Committee issued a report dated August 27, 2007 ( id. at 12), in which it forwarded 12 allegations out of 34 total to an investigation committee (the "Investigative Committee") for adjudication. ( Id. at 11-12.) The Investigative Committee did not have any non-whites. ( Id. at 11.)

The Investigative Committee claims that it aggregated and restated some of the allegations forwarded by the 2007 Inquiry Committee "[f]or the sake of clarity." (DE # 97-20 at 5.) Plaintiff claims that the allegations were changed to include two new allegations which were not on the list forwarded by the 2007 Inquiry Committee. (DE # 103-1 at 12.) According to plaintiff, he had already been exonerated of these new allegations by the 2006 Inquiry Committee. ( Id. at 13.) The Investigative Committee issued its final report on April 18, 2008, finding plaintiff guilty of two allegations of research misconduct. (DE # 97-20 at 2.) Specifically, the Investigative Committee found that: (1) plaintiff compelled the addition of Butt's name as an author on one of the papers supporting plaintiff's prior research to create the appearance that Xu had collaborated with someone in researching and drafting the paper; and (2) plaintiff falsely stated, in a scientific paper, that his research and been "independently confirmed" by Xu, when the supposedly confirmatory work by Xu actually involved direct mentoring, editing, and promotion by plaintiff himself. (DE # 97-20 at 23.) On July 18, 2008, Purdue issued a press release stating the results of the investigation. (DE # 97-2 at 18.)

Plaintiff appealed the Investigative Committee's findings to an appellate committee (the "Appeals Committee"). (DE # 103-1 at 42.) The Appeals Committee upheld the Investigative Committee's decision in a report dated August 21, 2008. (DE # 97 at 17.) On August 27, 2008, plaintiff received notice via a letter from Purdue's Provost, Randy Woodson, that multiple sanctions would be levied on plaintiff. ( Id. at 14-15.) Plaintiff was stripped of his named chair professorship, denied access to the associated discretionary funds, subjected to a salary reduction, was removed from the School of Nuclear Engineering Graduate Committee, and though he continued to advise students, he was denied the privilege of being recognized on theses as the Major Professor of the students. ( Id. at 21.) Plaintiff further claims that, in October 2008, defendant instructed plaintiff to spend extra time and effort compiling work product, and denied plaintiff's requests for extra time and compensation. ( Id. at 17.) Plaintiff complied with the request. ( Id. ) At some point in 2008, ONR subjected plaintiff to debarment due to the findings of misconduct, rendering plaintiff unable to receive federal grants or contracts through 2011. ( Id. at 20.) Plaintiff asserts that defendant denied plaintiff's requests for institutional assistance for contesting the debarment procedures and effectively "disowned" plaintiff and left him to "fend for himself" against ONR's attack. ( Id. at 18, 52.) In 2009, Purdue declined to accept grant money that plaintiff had applied for and had been awarded. ( Id. at 19-20.) Plaintiff also alleges that he was required to sign over the rights to an invention at some point after the announcement of his guilt. ( Id. at 21.)

Plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on February 14, 2009, claiming that defendant had permitted an environment of racial slurs, had levied disproportionate sanctions upon him, had fabricated allegations against him, and had violated its own rules, all because he was Indian. (DE # 103-8 at 29.) After receiving a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, plaintiff filed the present pro se lawsuit on May 4, 2010, alleging that defendant violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and committed several torts. (DE # 1.) After the case had been pending for over three years and the discovery period had closed (a period which had been generously extended numerous times by Magistrate Judge Andrew P. Rodovich), defendant filed a motion for summary judgment under FEDERAL RULE OF CIVIL PROCEDURE 56. (DE # 96.) After plaintiff filed his pro se response, defendant filed a RULE 56 motion to strike several affidavits filed by plaintiff with his response. (DE # 105.) Both motions are now fully briefed and ripe for review.


FEDERAL RULE OF CIVIL PROCEDURE 56 requires the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery, against a party "who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In responding to a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must identify specific facts establishing that there is a genuine issue of fact for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986); Palmer v. Marion County, 327 F.3d 588, 595 (7th Cir. 2003). In doing so, the non-moving party cannot rest on the pleadings alone, but must present fresh proof in support of its position. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Donovan v. City of Milwaukee, 17 F.3d 944, 947 (7th Cir. 1994). A dispute about a material fact is genuine only "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If no reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party, then there is no "genuine" dispute. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007).

The court's role in deciding a summary judgment motion is not to evaluate the truth of the matter, but instead to determine whether there is a genuine issue of triable fact. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50; Doe v. R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., 42 F.3d 439, 443 (7th Cir. 1994). In viewing the facts presented on a motion for summary judgment, a court must construe all facts in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all legitimate inferences and resolve all doubts in favor of that party. NLFC, Inc. v. Devcom Mid-Am., Inc., 45 F.3d 231, 234 (7th Cir. 1995). Importantly, the court is "not required to draw every conceivable inference from the record [in favor of the non-movant]-only those inferences that are reasonable." Bank Leumi Le-Israel, B.M., v. Lee, 928 F.2d 232, 236 (7th Cir. 1991) (emphasis added).


A. Motion to Strike

Defendant has moved to strike several affidavits plaintiff filed with his response brief. (DE # 105.) With or without these affidavits, defendant's motion for summary judgment succeeds. Accordingly, the court denies defendant's motion as unnecessary.

B. Tort Claims

Plaintiff has sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and possibly also defamation. Defendant have moved for summary judgment on these tort claims on the grounds that plaintiff failed to adequately provide advance notice of the claims to defendant.

The Indiana Tort Claims Act ("ITCA") bars any claim against the state unless advance notice is provided to the state defendant. IND. CODE § 34-13-3-8.[3] The notice must include the following information in a short and plain statement: (1) the circumstances that brought about the loss, (2) the extent of the loss, (3) the time and place the loss occurred, (4) the names of all persons involved if known, (5) the amount of damages sought, and (6) the residence of the person making the claim at the time of the loss and at the time of filing the notice. Id. § 34-13-3-10.

Plaintiff does not dispute that he never provided defendant with formal, advance notice of his tort claims. Instead, plaintiff makes several arguments in an attempt to convince the court that he substantially complied with the notice requirement. True, "notice is sufficient if it substantially complies with the content requirements of the statute." Collier v. Prater, 544 N.E.2d 497, 499 (Ind. 1989). In determining whether substantial compliance is established, the court looks to the purpose of the notice requirements, which is to inform state officials with reasonable certainty of the accident or incident and surrounding circumstances and to advise of the injured party's intent to assert a tort claim so that the state may investigate, determine its possible liability, and prepare a defense. Irwin Mortg. Corp. v. Marion Cnty. Treasurer, 816 N.E.2d 439, 446 (Ind.Ct.App. 2004). The claimant bears the burden of establishing substantial compliance. Id. at 439. Substantial compliance with the notice requirement of the ITCA is a question of law. Id.

First, plaintiff argues that his EEOC charge, which he filed with the EEOC and in which he alleges violations of his civil rights, provided defendant with notice of his tort claims. This argument fails. Robinson v. Leonard-Dent, No. 3:12CV417-PPS, 2013 WL 5701067, at *12 (N.D. Ind. Oct. 18, 2013) ("[T]hose [EEOC] charges, although in writing, were not filed with the [defendant] and would have apprised the [defendant] of impending claims under Title VII and Indiana civil rights laws, but not of tort claims. The ITCA notice must also be filed with the governing body of [the] political subdivision' and must be delivered in person or by registered or certified mail.' The administrative charges are not shown to have met these requirements either."). Plaintiff also alludes to an argument that his complaint itself suffices as notice, citing City of Hobart Sewage Works v. McCullough, 656 N.E.2d 1185 (Ind.Ct.App. 1995), but the City of Hobart ruling was abrogated by Kantz v. Elkhart County Highway Department, 701 N.E.2d 608, 616 (Ind.Ct.App. 1998), over fifteen years ago. Accordingly, this argument is also rejected.

Finally, plaintiff argues that he "kept Dr. Bralts aware of all of these developments from 2006 onwards through 2010 on a very timely basis." (DE # 102 at 7.) A similar argument was recently rejected by the Indiana Court of Appeals in Chang v. 01Purdue University, 985 N.E.2d 35, 52 (Ind.Ct.App. 2013). In that case, the plaintiff contended that she substantially complied with the notice requirement because she sent letters to the university's chancellor and president, as well as a demand letter to the university. Id. The court rejected the plaintiff's argument, finding that even if the defendant was "familiar with the situation and already knew all of th[e] information" that the ITCA required a plaintiff to include in the notice, "[the defendant's] independently acquired knowledge or routine investigation of an occurrence was insufficient to show substantial compliance with the notice statute.'" Id. at 53 (quoting Fowler v. Brewer, 773 N.E.2d 858, 864 (Ind.Ct.App. 2002)). The court stressed that the case "involve[d] more than a mere technical shortcoming. It appears instead that Chang did not consider the ITCA, and particularly its requirements governing notice." Id. at 54. The court further concluded that "[w]hile this court has interpreted the ...

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