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MIT’s Legal Approaches Vary in Different Cases

By Keith J. Winstein


To students occupied with the daily grind of MIT life, it may not be obvious that MIT is more than just an academic institution. MIT not only deals with teaching, research, and student life; the Institute is also involved in many legal battles. A review by The Tech of 17 of the Institute’s currently ongoing lawsuits found that in court, MIT has interpreted its non-commercial status differently to suit different legal situations.

The parents of the late Elizabeth H. Shin ’02 alleged in Shin v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, et al. that MIT violated the Massachusetts unfair and deceptive business practices and consumer fraud statute known as Chapter 93A by providing ineffective medical care which they say led to Shin’s April 2000 suicide.

Part of MIT’s response was to paint itself as far from “business” as possible. In its answer, MIT disputed the Shins’ introductory language. This language had stated that “Defendant Massachusetts Institute of Technology (‘MIT’) is a Massachusetts corporation with its usual place of business at 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA.”

In response, MIT wrote, “As a charitable, not-for-profit corporation devoted to education and research, MIT denies that it has a ‘place of business.’”

But in several lawsuits it has filed, MIT has used language nearly identical to that of Shin lawsuit to describe itself.

“Plaintiff MIT is a corporation which is incorporated under the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with its principal place of business located in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” MIT wrote in the first paragraph of its August 2001 patent infringement complaint against Sony Electronics Inc. MIT also used identical language in an October 2000 lawsuit against Sharp Electronics Corp., and in an April 2001 lawsuit against Toshiba America Inc. These lawsuits have since been settled.

Practice common, attorney says

Daryl Lapp, an attorney with Palmer and Dodge, LLP for MIT in the Shin case, said the differing stances had no legal significance. “The point of our denying that MIT is ‘in business’ for purposes of the Shin case is that they are trying to establish Chapter 93A liability against MIT ... which would involve establishing that MIT is ‘in business,’ and MIT is not ‘in business’ in that sense of the word,” he said.

MIT’s mention of its “place of business” in its own lawsuits pertains to whether the federal court in Boston is the proper venue for a lawsuit, not whether MIT is “in business,” Lapp said.

“It’s a term of art,” he said. “It’s two different lawyers using the term differently.”

MIT also used similar “place of business” language in a trademark infringement lawsuit against Time Inc. and CNET Networks Inc. in which it finds itself needing to argue for, rather than against, its having commercial status in order to assert a claim under Chapter 93A.

In the Time Inc. case, MIT has asserted “unfair and deceptive trade practices” under Chapter 93A that Time and CNET are “falsely representing that they are affiliated” with MIT. For this claim, MIT relies on an assertion that “Plaintiff [MIT] and defendants [Time and CNET] are commercial entities.”

This time, it is MIT’s adversary which tries to paint it as non-business. In their responses, Time and CNET respond by asserting that each “denies that plaintiff is a ‘commercial entity.’”

Institute involved in federal suits

MIT’s 12 federal lawsuits, of which nine involve claims of patent infringement, appear numerous in comparison with similar institutions. A search of the federal judiciary’s U.S. Party/Case Index found Harvard University currently involved in two federal lawsuits, neither involving patent infringement, and the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University each involved in one patent infringement lawsuit and four others. The index lists Princeton University as a party in six federal lawsuits, of which none involves patent infringement.

Table: Current Lawsuits Involving MIT