December 5, 2001

Demas Ph.D. '95 Presents Study as Suit Progresses

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Oral arguments are set to begin in an appeal brought by lawyers for Cornell University and Prof. David A. Levitsky, nutritional sciences, to have a multimillion dollar lawsuit against their clients dismissed.

New York State Supreme Court Judge Judith F. O’Shea originally denied the respective motions of Cornell and Levitsky to dismiss the case in December 2000 after five months of deliberation.

Antonia Demas Ph.D. ’95 first filed a lawsuit in Tompkins County Court in March 1999, alleging that Levitsky took credit for her research and that Cornell did not step in to protect her.

The appeal to have the case dismissed will begin in the Third Department of the New York State Appellate Division in Albany on Dec. 17.

“We’re anxious to have the appeals court decide the case,” said New York City attorney Michael Ronemus, who is arguing for Demas. “We feel that it’s a case of national significance.”

Demas’ doctoral presentation, which was published in 1994, included research on the effects of educating elementary school children to improve their eating habits. She claims that her work, which won two national awards, was improperly used by Levitsky.

The suit has gained publicity both on campus and among alumni as well as in national publications.

“People care about ethical issues,” Demas said. “This is a case of really interfering with someone’s career.”

Demas said that her intention was never to tarnish Cornell’s reputation and that she had pushed to have the case decided within the University. “They’re dragging it out as long as possible because time and money are on their side. But truth is on my side,” she said.

While the original case filed in 1999 listed 14 causes of action against the University and Levitsky, lawyers for Demas have decided to drop three of the six causes of action being brought specifically against Cornell, according to a brief filed on Nov. 23.

The University can file a counter brief before arguments begin in the appeals court, an opportunity of which the University will likely take advantage, according to University attorney Thomas D’Antonio of Rochester, N.Y.

D’Antonio declined to discuss specifics of the argument being brought before the appeals court before the case has been decided.

The three causes of action being dismissed include breach of fiduciary duty, tortious interference with prospective economic advantage and intentional infliction of emotional distress. According to the Nov. 23 brief, lawyers for Demas have dismissed the claims because legal precedent or the facts of the case do not sufficiently support one or more elements of these claims.

“We are dismissing them voluntarily to reduce the burden on the court and opposing counsel and enable all to focus on the remaining claims,” the brief states.

Lawyers for Demas are requesting between $2 and $10 million in compensatory damages for each of the remaining causes of action being brought against either Cornell, Levitsky, or both. In addition, Demas is asking for $20 million in punitive damages.

Ronemus, however, stressed that “the value of the case is what a jury will give,” he said.

He added, “[Dismissing the causes of action] doesn’t change the arguments, it doesn’t change the facts, it doesn’t change the value of the case.”

Henrik N. Dullea ’61, vice president for University relations, said he could not comment on the case because he was not familiar with the current brief.

“Generally speaking, the fewer claims there are, the fewer claims there are to address,” D’Antonio said. He would not elaborate on the University’s strategy in arguing the case. “I think that that’s the function of the judiciary,” he said.

Lawyers for Demas expect the appellate division to decide the case within the next few months.

Archived article by Beth Herskovits