Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Former Grad Student Fails in Bid for “Constructive Trust” in Professor’s Patent


On July 16, 2015, in Genspera v. Mahka, the Federal Circuit affirmed without discussion (i.e., under Rule 36) a district court decision denying a former doctoral student’s claim to a constructive trust in a patent issued to her former thesis advisor, a professor at Johns Hopkins University. The affirmed district court decision also denied her conversion claim against the professor.

The professor, along with another professor at Johns Hopkins, are named inventors on patents claiming a cancer prodrug. The graduate student, Mahka, claims that she came up with the idea for the only specific chemical compound claimed in the patents, a compound that is currently undergoing clinical testing. Genspera is a company started by the professors to develop and commercialize the prodrug.

Mahka initially sought to be added as an inventor to the patents, but the district court granted Genspera summary judgment because “a finding that Mhaka added an invention to the Application after the disclosure was filed would invalidate the Patents, and a district court cannot apply § 256 to require the Patent Office to add an inventor to an issued patent when doing so would invalidate the patent.”  The problem was that the prodrug allegedly invented by Mahka was not created until after the filing date of the patents.

Mahka then turned to state law causes of action. She claimed conversion of her invention by the professors, but the district court rejected this claim. The court found that under Maryland law the tort of conversion does not extend to completely intangible rights, and that Mahka’s asserted rights in the “invention” claimed in the patents was completely intangible.

Mahka also sought a constructive trust, a form of equitable relief which would have required the professors to share some of the benefits they derived from the patents, specifically stock in Genspera.  A constructive trust remedy is applied when “property has been acquired by fraud, misrepresentation, or other improper method, or where the circumstances render it inequitable for the party holding the title to retain it.” Its purpose is “to prevent the unjust enrichment of the holder of the property.”

The district court denied this claim, finding that it was barred by laches, i.e., Mahka waited too long to file her lawsuit.  The district court held that she needed to file her claim within three years of learning of the alleged failure to name her on the patent, and that she had waited more than four years.  After leaving Johns Hopkins, Mahka worked at a venture capital firm doing intellectual property research, which is where she allegedly learned of the patents.  She learned about them, and her omission as an inventor, in 2008, and contacted John Hopkins at that time, who advised her to hire her own lawyer. She waited until 2012 to file a lawsuit, at which point her cause of action was time-barred.

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Jordan said...

Interesting case here. I trust that the jury came to the best conclusion with the evidence, but I do feel pretty bad for that grad student too at the same time. Thanks for sharing this!