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Fired Georgia Tech Professor Loses Lawsuit

ATLANTA (CN) - Georgia Tech did not violate the rights of a professor it said it fired for misusing school resources for his tech start-up, a federal judge ruled.

Joy Laskar was a tenured professor of electrical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology until 2011. While teaching graduate students, Laskar did research on chip design at the Georgia Electronic Design Center (GEDC) and founded a number of tech companies that sold for millions of dollars.

The last company he founded while at Georgia Tech, Sayana Wireless, created a promising wireless chip and was being courted by Samsung and Qualcomm, news reports show.

In May 2010, Georgia Tech President G.P. Peterson sent Laskar a letter saying that the university was suspending him without pay for alleged misconduct. The official claimed the university had "substantial evidence of malfeasance on [Laskar's] part including the misappropriation of institute resources for the benefit of a company, Sayana Wireless, LLC, of which you [Laskar] are part owner," according to court papers.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents raided Laskar's university offices and home the same month, confiscating files and computer equipment, The New York Times reported.

Laskar was later arrested on state racketeering charges, but he has not yet been indicted, according to news reports.

After Laskar sued the university for suspending him without pay, the case was settled and he continued to receive his salary during the suspension.

But the school fired Laskar after an academic committee examined charges that he had used university resources for his for-profit company and had failed to disclose the extent of his involvement in Sayana.

Laskar appealed the decision, but failed to persuade Georgia Tech employees to testify for him. A hearing committee unanimously recommended Laskar's termination in May 2011, and the Board of Regents upheld the decision.

"These violations are sufficiently egregious to warrant dismissal," the faculty committee's report said. While the climate in the Georgia Electronic Design Center "may have encouraged some of these violations, Professor Laskar's leadership position in the GEDC gave him a particular responsibility to set an example and to insure that such violations did not occur," according to the report.

A Fulton County Superior Court judge refused to review the Board of Regents' decision, finding that the court lacked jurisdiction over the termination process.

After the Georgia Court of Appeals also refused to review the termination decision, concluding that the process was administrative, Laskar filed a federal complaint against Peterson and other university officials, alleging conspiracy and violations of his due process rights.

Georgia Tech officials argued that the termination satisfied due process requirements and that, in any event, Laskar could have challenged any deficiencies in state court.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash agreed that both the Superior Court and the Georgia Court of Appeals could have dismissed Laskar's mandamus request without addressing the merits, thus denying him access to state remedies.

But Thrash dismissed Laskar's due process violation claim, noting that university officials stuck to procedural requirements.

Laskar received notice of the charges against him, had a hearing before a panel of qualified faculty members, and never alleged that the panel was biased against him, according to the Dec. 20 opinion.

Counsel also represented Laskar at the hearing, and the professor was allowed to present evidence, call witnesses and cross-examine opposing witnesses, the ruling adds.

What's more, after the committee heard testimony and found that three of the five charges against Laskar were proven in whole or in part, Peterson had the chance to appeal the termination decision, according to the ruling.

Thrash rejected Laskar's argument that the hearing committee should have been independent for its decision to have weight.

He noted that, as applied to Laskar's case, due process does not include the right to compel witnesses to appear in an administrative hearing.

Laskar also had access to relevant Georgia Tech documents for more than a year before filing his federal lawsuit, and disclosing those records earlier would not have made a difference, the ruling states.

No facts meanwhile support the conspiracy claim, according to the ruling.

Attorneys for Laskar did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for Georgia's Senior Assistant Attorney General, who represented the university officials, declined to comment on the decision, saying that the office still had a pending matter involving Laskar.

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