University’s General Counsel stays busy with variety of cases

Mike Oakes

The University’s Office of the General Counsel has been splashed over the news media in the past, especially with the civil case against former men’s basketball coach Clem Haskins.
But when large cases aren’t on its agenda, the lawyers usually labor in the shadows.
What most of the University community doesn’t know is that on any given morning, members of the counsel’s office bring to their desks one cup of coffee and any one of 160 cases pending against the University.
That figure is down from two years ago when the office battled more than 200 cases at a time.
Led by University head attorney Mark Rotenberg, the 15-member legal team is faced with everything from employment grievances to medical malpractice suits to multi-million dollar federal bouts.
A number of those contests were more difficult in 1998, when the office was comprised of 13 attorneys.
With the addition of Shelley Carthen Watson and Saundra Martell in 1999, the office’s workload was made lighter and its wallet heavier.
Costs for outside legal assistance are reduced with more attorneys on the inside, Rotenberg explained.
And with inside specialization and outside cost-reduction as its goal, the office will claim three more members as their own by the end of November.
The additional three lawyers should reduce the counsel’s reliance on outside legal service in areas involving patent and technology transfer, sponsored research and grants compliance, and real estate.
“Those are three areas where we are going to have additional firepower,” Rotenberg said.
But large institutions are always going to be costly to defend, he explained.
Because 98 percent of the counsel’s docket is defense work, Rotenberg said it’s impossible to budget for cases that may or may not come up in the future.
Regardless, the General Counsel’s office has to determine at the beginning of each fiscal year how much it will spend on outside legal assistance.
In fiscal year 2000 the office spent $2.73 million on outside legal assistance, a number down more than $3 million from the year before. In fiscal year 1999, the legal bills reached nearly $6 million.
But large high-profile cases are budgeted separately.
“The big cases have historically exceeded the outside service budget,” said Richard Pfutzenreuter, University chief financial officer.
At least two cases in the past 12 months qualified for additional monies, which are tacked on quarterly as expenses rise.
The University fought and won a patent suit against Glaxo Wellcome, a pharmaceutical corporation that claimed it had rights to an anti-AIDS drug called Ziagen. But compounds in the drug were developed by a University researcher and subject to patent laws.
The $300 million victory was the largest patent win for an American university in history.
Another General Counsel investigation found that Dennis Polla, former head of the University’s Biomedical Institute, mismanaged private and federal grants while billing the federal government inappropriately. Polla resigned his post in light of the discovery.
The University spent $500,000 investigating Polla, which included fees for outside legal work.
And as of this week, the counsel can chalk up another case in the win column. On Monday, the Minnesota Supreme Court refused to review a Court of Appeals decision in favor of the University in a case against a former treasurer.
Georgina Stephens claimed she was wrongfully terminated from her University treasurer position. The University claimed Stephens didn’t exhaust the institution’s grievance process.
The Court of Appeals ruled for the University.
Most notable among pending cases is the suit against former basketball coach Haskins. The University is seeking to reclaim a portion of the $1.5 million paid to buy out his contract in June 1999.
This case is rare, Rotenberg said, because his office is acting as the plaintiff, not the defense.
Associate General Counsels Lorie Gildea and Thomas Schumacher are handling the Haskins case.
“Lorie’s got a good deal of trial work experience in hotly contested matters. She knows athletics well and she’s done a good deal of Title IX work,” Rotenberg said. “Tom is an experienced litigator with excellent courtroom and writing skills.”
In cases litigated to a conclusion this fiscal year, the counsel office boasts a win-loss record of 44-1, and two with mixed results.
“We don’t always do quite that well,” Rotenberg said. “This year we had an amazing year.”

Mike Oakes covers the Office of the General Counsel and welcomes comments at [email protected]