The first Monday of the new year is shaping up to be a confrontational one for UCSD versus the University of Southern California, the possibly precedent-setting legal battle of the universities over the future of a multimillion-dollar Alzheimer's research program led by ex-UCSD professor Paul Aisen.
As previously reported, the legal war was launched by UCSD in July after Aisen and fellow researchers decamped to USC, allegedly taking with them the electronic keys to a vast storehouse of information about their years-long investigation into the memory-sapping disease.
USC quickly struck back, charging, among other things, that its rival had “pressured Dr. Aisen to move [the Alzheimer’s program] to the UCSD campus so that UCSD could collect indirect costs of up to 55 percent, a move which would have crippled the program financially by diverting too much grant funding from research projects into UCSD’s Administration.”
Responded UCSD chancellor Pradeep Khosla in a statement, "We are proud of our work, grateful for our partners, and disappointed that one faculty member has chosen to separate in such a way that puts the [Alzheimer's research] work in jeopardy."
Shortly thereafter, associate vice chancellor for UC San Diego Health Sciences Paul Viviano abruptly quit his $831,147-a-year job to become chief executive officer of the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles in August.
With further insults and accusations flying, the Aisen case was moved from state Superior Court, where judge Judith Hayes appeared to some to be tilting in favor of the local team, to the federal courthouse, where district court judge Roger T. Benitez has since overseen the matter.
Brief-filing and deposition-taking this fall by lawyers for the parties has been fast and furious, giving no early indication that Monday's so-called Early Neutral Evaluation Conference, to be conducted by federal magistrate judge Jill L. Burkhardt, offers much hope of a quick settlement.
"Just to be clear on the sequence of events, USC gave Dr. Aisen his offer of employment at $500,000 a year on May 20th. May 21st, Dr. Aisen told the [National Institute on Aging], 'I've decided to move to USC.’” said UCSD's attorney Dan Sharp during a July 23 hearing.
"May 22nd, Dr. Aisen told all the staff at the [Alzheimer's program] he's moving to USC and that they're going to lose their jobs. And on May 23rd, Dr. Mobley called Dr. Aisen into his office and said that was wrong to do and took away his computer access, because Dr. Mobley was concerned about Dr. Aisen stealing the data, and that's exactly what he did."
Responded John B. Quinn, a lawyer for USC, "Mr. Sharp seems more concerned with getting 'control' of the studies than the integrity of the data and the welfare of the patients. The entire IT group that was running this program at UCSD has departed and is now at USC.”
Continued Quinn, “There is a reason the companies that have paid for these projects have directed that everything be transferred to USC. Putting this program in control of the people at UCSD who have had no responsibility for it in the past jeopardizes all the Alzheimer’s work that has been done for years with thousands of patients."
The lawyer concluded, “Speaking frankly, there is no one left at UCSD who is competent to run these programs. To deliver it over to their control without the court's supervision is an invitation to disaster."
In a November 16 filing, Sharp complained to the federal court that Aisen and company had failed to follow an order issued in August by state-court judge Hayes.
"Defendants have refused to cooperate in the restoration of the [Alzheimer's] Data and Systems, and refused to provide passwords or control of accounts housing the data as required by the Court's Preliminary Injunction Order," declared Sharp.
"Defendants have further specifically refused to comply with the directive of the Court-appointed Special Master requiring Defendants to relinquish passwords to certain accounts and data."
Asserting that USC and co-defendants were in contempt of court, the filing asked for sanctions of "at least" $10,000 a day.
Then, as this coming Monday's hearing approached, a personal medical issue intruded into the lawyers' wrangling, according to a December 22 court filing.
USC defendant Kelly Harless, UCSD's former clinical evaluation manager, who in July moved with Aisen to USC to become program manager of clinical operations there, “learned that her teenage son must undergo unexpected surgery to remove a brain tumor on January 4, 2016. Ms. Harless has requested to be excused from the [neutral evaluation conference] in order to accompany her son to the hospital so that the surgery will not be postponed."
Both parties moved to grant the request.