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UC Regents sue UCLA radiology professor Robert Lufkin for engaging in non-UC work

By Sean Greene and Nicholas Greitzer

April 19, 2010 10:25 p.m.

A group of UCLA staff members entered a medical school professor’s office late at night in January 2008 to gather electronic evidence of alleged prohibited outside activities involving Dr. Robert Lufkin.

In their lawsuit, the Regents claim Lufkin owes the University for the millions of dollars that he earned while acting as a director, shareholder and consultant at outside medical and technological firms U.S. Radiology On-Call, Prohealth Advanced Imaging and Mediasmith.

For years, Lufkin had allegedly been working with these companies while failing to report his involvement and income in accordance with UC policy.

Lufkin, a UCLA radiology professor currently on voluntary unpaid leave, claims the searches violated his Fourth and 14th Amendment rights, which protect against undue searches and seizures and guarantee due process of law.

Lufkin’s complaint comes in the form of a federal suit against the UC Board of Regents as they simultaneously pursue him for damages at the state level.

The UC Health Sciences Compensation Plan allows medical school faculty to engage in compensated outside business activities following disclosure to and approval from the University, according to the Regents.

Under the income and commitment thresholds that the University places on the outside activities, the compensation plan members then owe the University of California the income earned. All medical school faculty are required to participate in the plan.

The policy is designed to prevent conflicts of interest in its faculty, said Janet Lockwood, associate director of academic personnel for the UC Office of the President.

“The policy really tries to emphasize that physician educators who have faculty appointments with the University of California owe to the (University) any revenue from their clinical practices,” she said. “In other words, the physician is practicing at the approval of the University of California. As an employee, they can’t moonlight.”

The University trains the physician, provides a practice venue and pays for all overhead and malpractice insurance, Lockwood said. In exchange, the University requires that the physician not practice for personal gain or work in the same type of job in which the University employs the physician. Some aspects of the plan are up for negotiation with the department chair, Lockwood said.

According to the Regents’ complaint submitted to the court, Lufkin had been using University resources to build a “directly competing business.”

“(Lufkin had been) siphoning away patients to the detriment of the University and generally building his own business when he owed a duty to his employer of undivided loyalty to advance his employer’s interests,” according to the Regents’ complaint.

Under UCLA policy, medical school faculty may only provide occasional service to outside organizations for 21 days per fiscal year of which they can keep the income, said Albert Glover, director of academic affairs for the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.

Lufkin was allegedly withholding income from his outside activities, which represents a conflict of interest under UC policy.

Glover said the policy is really a matter of full disclosure. Full-time faculty may work in executive or managerial positions only with prior approval from the department.

“The faculty member obviously owes his first allegiance to the University … and would be able to fulfill his obligations to the University,” Glover said.

The Regents initiated an investigation on Lufkin’s outside activities amid mounting suspicion of outside professional activity.

According to the Regents’ attorneys, UCLA’s actions in searching Lufkin’s office were rare, but under a UCLA e-mail policy such searches are permitted when there exists compelling circumstance or reason to believe that state or University law has been broken.

As part of the investigation into Lufkin’s outside activities, the 2008 search, authorized by a university warrant signed by Thomas Rice, vice chancellor of academic personnel, obtained 75 gigabytes of data containing U.S. Radiology On-Call trade secrets, as well as Lufkin’s own personal and privileged patient medical records, according to court documents.

Lufkin’s suit, however, claims the hard drive evidence was obtained illegally. The case seeks to place a permanent injunction on the use of the data by the Regents, as well as its return with damages paid.

According to Lufkin’s attorney, Lufkin has since repaid the thousands of dollars owed to the UC from his outside clinical work.

“The federal lawsuit details the undisputed fact that a group of UCLA employees quietly broke into a faculty member’s office at night to steal all of his electronic data, and that they did it several times over the course of several years,” said Eric Rose, a spokesman for Lufkin’s attorneys. “This was all done in violation of the faculty’s right to privacy and in violation of the University’s stated policies.”

Since the personal hard drive was connected to Lufkin’s university computer at the time of the search, it was valid under the approved university search warrant, said Dale Tate, UCLA Health System spokeswoman.

Even UCLA’s privacy policies cannot be barriers in criminal investigations involving searches of faculty offices, especially if there exists a warrant, said UCLA School of Law professor Eugene Volokh, an expert in information privacy and cyberspace matters. As long as there exists reasonable suspicion, then a search is justified, he said.

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