U lawyers bring history of success to Williams case

The University has won more than 90 percent of its 156 court cases in the last five years.

Greta Kaul

The University of Minnesota filed Wednesday to appeal the $1 million judgment against basketball coach Tubby Smith to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The award was upheld by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in mid-October. The court ruled that Smith wrongly promised Jimmy Williams an assistant coaching job at the University in 2007.

 The University has lost just 8 percent of its 156 court cases in the last five years, according to an annual report by the Office of the General Counsel. It has recovered more than $550 million since 1997.

In the 24 suits that have been decided in the past year, the University paid out $1.6 million in 19 of its suits and recovered about $5 million in five others.

ItâÄôs unclear whether the stateâÄôs highest court will even hear the Jimmy Williams case. According to an article by the Minnesota State Bar Association, the Minnesota Supreme Court only hears about 10 percent of filed appeals cases.

Mark Rotenberg, the UniversityâÄôs general counsel, will have to petition the case in order to get a hearing. University cases only make it to the court once every few years, he said.

âÄúThis amount is clearly excessive,âÄù he said in a press release announcing the UniversityâÄôs intention to appeal last week. âÄúEven if you assume [Williams is] out two years of income, you donâÄôt get $1 million for that. ThatâÄôs valuable public funds he is getting.âÄù

Rotenberg wouldnâÄôt discuss the ongoing case, but weighed in on the UniversityâÄôs track record in the courts.

Part of the reason for the success is an increased effort to settle complaints before they go to trial, he said. Since his tenure began in 1992, the Office of the General Counsel has expanded from seven lawyers to 18.

âÄúWeâÄôre constantly struggling to find ways in which we can divert the attacks to a more cost-effective resolution,âÄù Rotenberg said.

The University is the defendant in more than 95 percent of its cases.

âÄúOn any given day, there are countless things that can go wrong here. Our buses may run into peopleâÄôs cars,âÄù Rotenberg said. âÄúEmployees may do something bad to students. People believe that our groundwater has polluted the Mississippi, the stadium makes too much noise and the neighbors get upset.âÄù

But the University is under increased pressure to protect the products of research, he added âÄî shrinking funds from the state have made keeping an eye on the UniversityâÄôs intellectual property all the more important.

âÄúIf people are preying on our technology and are using our inventions, we will insist that we be given a fair compensation for what our faculty invented,âÄù Rotenberg said.

After legal fees, the money recovered in intellectual property suits is split roughly into thirds between the researcher who developed the technology, the department that supported its creation and the Office of the Vice President for Research, according to Board of Regents policy.

 The Office of Technology Commercialization polices licenses for use of University technology. When infringements occur or payments havenâÄôt been made, the office notifies the offender. If they refuse to comply with the terms of an agreement, the matter may go to court.

âÄúThatâÄôs just good business practice,âÄôâÄù said John Merritt, a spokesman for the OVPR, of protecting licenses. Merritt was not aware of any increased pressure to police patent licenses by the OVPR.

But in the grand scheme of things, lawsuit settlements donâÄôt usually make up a significant portion of the UniversityâÄôs budget, said Richard Pfutzenreuter, the UniversityâÄôs chief financial officer.