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USC Makes Federal Case Out of Dispute Over Alzheimer’s Study

Xconomy San Diego — 

In a surprising turn of events, the University of Southern California has moved a bitter legal dispute with UC San Diego over a prestigious Alzheimer’s disease research program to federal court—and replaced the law firm that was handling its case.

Lawyers for USC filed a notice of removal of the dispute to federal court on Aug. 10, just days after San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith Hayes issued a preliminary injunction, ordering  USC and others to restore control over the nationwide Alzheimer’s study to UC San Diego. Hayes subsequently cancelled hearings she had scheduled in the case, which was headed to a state trial on the merits.

USC also has replaced the Costa Mesa office of the Paul Hastings law firm with Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, a prominent, litigation-only law firm based in Los Angeles, according to a notice filed with Hayes’ court on July 29.

The case was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Roger Benitez, and on Monday, lawyers for USC filed a motion to dismiss the civil lawlsuit that UC San Diego had filed in state court, arguing, among other things, that UC San Diego had failed to cite specific facts in legal documents submitted to Judge Hayes.

Meanwhile, Hayes’ order remains in effect, and a special master is expected to proceed with instructions to ensure that USC restores complete control over the Alzheimer’s research program to UC San Diego. In issuing the order on Aug. 5, Hayes wrote that UC San Diego “demonstrated a likelihood of succeeding on the merits of one or more claims” made in its lawsuit.

Before Judge Benitez can consider USC’s motion to dismiss, however, he is expected to determine whether the case belongs in federal court. In documents submitted in federal court, USC argues that the case belongs in federal court because UC San Diego cited federal copyright law in its filings.

But a lawyer for UC San Diego said he plans to ask the judge to send the case back to state court.

“Our claims against USC and Aisen do not raise federal claims,” said Dan Sharp, a San Francisco-based lawyer representing the University of California. “They are claims under state law.”

The dispute began in June, after USC hired scientist Paul Aisen and roughly 30 members of his team from UC San Diego, where Aisen has worked since 2007 as director of a federally funded research center known as the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS).

UC San Diego established the ADCS in 1991, with funding from the National Institute on Aging. The agency renewed its funding in 2013 through a five-year grant of up to $55 million, and additional funding from pharmaceutical partners and donations has raised total funding for the center to roughly $100 million.

Problems erupted, however, when it became clear that Aisen intended to carry the ADCS center and its funding to USC—while UC San Diego expected to retain the center.

The case began attracting wide attention among academic research centers after UC San Diego sued USC, Aisen, and other defendants on July 2, arguing that USC and Aisen had conspired to  “misappropriate” the ADCS program to USC.

UC San Diego also contends that Aisen and his team took root control of the ADCS computer system and database, which has prevented UC San Diego from meeting its contractual obligations for overseeing the multi-faceted research program and ensuring the integrity of research data.

As the case wears on, however, it’s becoming clearer that a crucial bone of contention is the computer network developed to manage Alzheimer’s research at 70 sites throughout the U.S. and Canada—and especially the customized electronic data collection (EDS) system that Aisen’s team created while they were employed at UC San Diego. The EDS system contains data from clinical trials conducted under the ADCS program over the past 24 years.

Much of Aisen’s core team moved with him to USC, which has argued, ironically, that UC San Diego no longer has the personnel with the specialized knowledge needed to properly maintain the computer system and database so as to protect the data and maintain its integrity.

As lawyers for UC San Diego put it in legal arguments submitted in state court, “The EDC system, and the underlying software programs and ADCS data are owned by the [University of California] Regents and [pharmaceutical] sponsors, as clearly set out in the Copyright Act, applicable federal regulations, University of California guidelines, and by the clear terms of the grant contracts.”

USC’s move doesn’t necessarily mean that Judge Benitez will accept the case, even if federal claims are part of the case. A USC spokesman did not respond last night to a request for comment on developments in the case.

“This is not a copyright case,” said Sharp, the lawyer for UC San Diego. “This is a case of Dr. Aisen and USC taking our computer system.”