Former Colleagues Fight Over Turtle Data
NORTH PALM BEACH (CN) - A leading marine research center filed for an injunction against its former head scientist, claiming he stole years of research data and used it to carry out unauthorized studies.
Loggerhead Marinelife Center claims in court that biologist Christopher Johnson swiped the data from its computer system when he was fired in 2013.
Johnson and fellow biologist Kelly Martin exploited the data for the benefit of their organization Project Leatherback, Loggerhead says in the complaint.
Loggerhead sued Johnson, Martin, graduate student Edward Pritchard and Project Leatherback, in Palm Beach County Court.
Loggerhead seeks compensatory damages and asks that the court "enjoin the defendants from further use of [Loggerhead's] stolen and misappropriated research data, programs, and information."
Johnson had overseen much of the disputed research during his 16-year tenure with Loggerhead. His employment was terminated a few months after Loggerhead's board of directors appointed Jack Lighton as president and CEO in March 2013. On the heels of Johnson's departure, Martin and Pritchard resigned from their jobs at Loggerhead's Juno Beach facility.
Loggerhead says in the lawsuit that when they left, Johnson, Martin and Pritchard "downloaded a tremendous amount of data, including all of the leatherback sea turtle research data."
Loggerhead has been studying the nesting habits of leatherbacks - the largest sea turtle species - for more than 20 years, and it characterizes its leatherback data set as "one of the most robust ... in the world."
The three ex-employees also took a list of donors and volunteers and removed a hard drive from Loggerhead's computer, Loggerhead claims.
According to the lawsuit, the trio went on to launch websites that mislead the public into thinking Loggerhead's turtle research was theirs or Project Leatherback's. The name "Project Leatherback" is nearly identical to the name of Loggerhead's turtle-monitoring program, adding to the confusion, Loggerhead claims.
The scientists' attorney David Rosemberg, a partner at Broad & Cassel, responded to the lawsuit in a telephone interview.
"LMC [Loggerhead Marinelife Center] has asserted some very serious allegations against my clients. They are all false and without merit," Rosemberg said.
"The lawsuit is a power play: a Putin land grab," he said. "Loggerhead seems more concerned with throwing lavish parties for their donors than pursuing sea turtle research."
Rosemberg said that Loggerhead's actions to shut down Martin and Johnson's studies are "contrary to [its] own mission" to advance marine biology in South Florida. He said that instead of coordinating research efforts with his clients, Loggerhead took an adversarial approach, which has had the effect of shutting down substantially all of the important turtle studies in the area.
"For Martin and Johnson, this [research] is their livelihood, their passion. They've paid for this out of their own pocket," Rosemberg added.
In part, the dispute between the parties stems from Project Leatherback's permit to survey leatherback turtles around Juno Beach, a common nesting ground for the colossal creatures. Johnson recently completed a fund-raising campaign for all-terrain vehicles to carry out those surveys within earshot of Loggerhead's headquarters.
According to the lawsuit, Johnson used to hold the permit through Loggerhead, but after his employment was terminated, he renewed the permit under Project Leatherback's name.
Loggerhead states in the lawsuit: "Rather than relinquishing the permit ... Johnson, Martin and Pritchard continued the study of leatherback sea turtles in the same area and vicinity as research was being conducted by [Loggerhead], representing to the public that the prior research as well as the continuation of the research was under the auspices and ownership of Project Leatherback."
The initial dispute surfaced in the public eye when, before the lawsuit was filed, Loggerhead petitioned the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to stop Project Leatherback's surveys.
On April 3, Johnson mentioned the conflict on his website. He wrote that the commission informed him he would be unable to continue the turtle surveys due to the petition filed against him by Loggerhead.
The commission confirmed in an email to Courthouse News that Johnson's permit had been challenged under Chapter 120 of Florida statutes, and that the permit "is not currently in effect."
Johnson commented on the matter in an April 6 website entry: "We do not know why [Loggerhead] took action to stop this project,"
Johnson wrote. "Each night we lose valuable data because this project is stopped. We cannot answer regarding the motivation of [Loggerhead]; we do not know."
The lawsuit was filed two weeks later.
Both Loggerhead and Project Leatherback are nonprofit organizations.
Loggerhead began as a small museum in 1983 and has grown into a well-known marine biology center with a veterinary hospital, exhibit hall, research lab and outdoor classroom. Despite its status as a popular tourist spot, it does not charge for admission to its campus.
Leatherback turtles can grow up to 9 feet long and weigh as much as half a ton.