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In the first suit of its kind in Connecticut, a former Yale ecology student is suing two professors and the university, alleging they stole his original theoretical process for understanding natural ecosystems. Kris Johnson, a forestry graduate from the University of Wyoming, is suing Yale and ecology professors Oswald Schmitz and David Skelly for $40 million, alleging that the two professors misappropriated Johnson’s idea, disparaged his thinking ability in an oral exam ambush, and appropriated his work as theirs. He alleges that an academic investigation by Yale was a whitewash, and that his career was derailed due to a combination of his loss of funding and credit for his thinking, which forced him to leave Yale. Johnson’s federal fraud case, filed last November before U.S. District Judge Janet B. Arterton in New Haven, Conn., largely survived motions to dismiss 12 of its 18 counts. The counsel for Yale and the professors, Patrick D. Noonan of Wallingford, Conn., argued that Johnson’s case was actually a claim for educational malpractice, a tort not recognized in Connecticut. The 35-page complaint alleges misappropriation, fraud, theft, interference with prospective economic advantage, defamation, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, reckless and wanton misconduct, and unfair trade practices. Arterton, in her Sept. 29 ruling, dismissed a total of four counts of defamation and unfair trade practices, but declined to dismiss Johnson’s claims for breach of express and implied contract, breach of fiduciary duty, and negligence. In her analysis of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices count, Arterton pointed out that contemporary research universities frequently have technology licensing offices to commercialize research results. As an example, Stanford University last year collected $61 million through its technology licensing office, Arterton notes. She nevertheless declined to cast the case as an unfair trade matter. Johnson’s complaint asserts that his theory was hailed by Schmitz as theoretically significant, accomplishing what everyone in the field would like to do, which was to unify food web ecology and ecosystem ecology. WEB OF SUSPICION Daniel Blinn, of the Consumer Law Group in Rocky Hill, Conn., represents Johnson. The complaint says Johnson first became concerned while on a summer study program in July 1995 at the Yale Forest in northeastern Connecticut. Two students began reading his private journal and discussing his theories by telephone with Schmitz. Johnson told Kristina Vogt, a co-chair of his dissertation committee, of his concern. Schmitz said Johnson would have to be more trusting to earn his degree. In December 1995, Johnson submitted a paper for publication in the prestigious British journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, listing Schmitz and Vogt as co-authors. It was published in September 1996 and generated letters of praise from well-known ecologists. But at his dissertation exam, Schmitz attacked and ridiculed Johnson personally, the complaint states. The student was told that he could not see the big picture, that his thinking was flawed, and that his ideas were ridiculous and unoriginal. Although he never got formal notice of how he did, Schmitz informally told Johnson he had flunked, the complaint states. In 1998, Johnson secured a $50,000 research grant, but alleges that Yale failed to report on his work to the grant source and would not advance funds. The dean of the forestry school, and later the Yale provost, instituted inquiries into Johnson’s complaints, but he alleges both were cursory and resulted in a whitewash. Meanwhile, Schmitz and Skelly continued to use Johnson’s theory scholastically, preventing Johnson from obtaining grant funding. Yale attacked the 18-count complaint on grounds that Johnson had created no property that could be stolen. Johnson never claims any protectable intellectual property right — patent or copyright — recognized by law, Noonan argued. Secondly, claims of breach of educational contract or educational negligence are not recognized under the 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court’s Gupta v. New Britain Hospital. No matter how creatively pled, Yale contends in its motion to dismiss, Johnson’s arguments are nothing more than an attempt to challenge the reasonableness of conduct by an educational institution in providing particular educational services to students. In upholding contractual, negligence and fiduciary breach counts against Yale, Arterton found that the university’s catalogues, circulars, bulletins and regulations, along with other promises to students, amount to an implied contract. And Johnson’s complaint alleges a breach of specific promises capable of objective assessment by the court — not just a claim of inadequate teaching. Noonan, in an interview, says the case is more akin to allegations of plagiarism, which normally are handled internally within the academic institution and don’t become a federal case. Blinn, however, says the case is fundamentally important because it recognizes that deliberate actions by faculty members against graduate students, contrary to their duties to nurture and assist them, are going to be actionable. Says Blinn, “They’re not going to be treated the same way as ‘Johnny can’t read’ cases.” He adds that the claim is that Yale and its professors deliberately took advantage of a doctoral student for the betterment and advancement of those professors, and to the student’s detriment.

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