For the past decade, Dr. Joseph A. Grocela has tinkered in the basement workshop of his Weston home, coming up with inventions that range from urological devices to a voice box that helps musicians harmonize and improves intonation for the tone deaf.
Now he’s in a legal fight with the hospital where he practices, Massachusetts General Hospital, and its corporate parent, Partners HealthCare System Inc., over who owns the rights to those creations and others.
In a lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court, Grocela, 47, says he was told by Frances Toneguzzo, the top official at Partners’ licensing division, that Mass. General “trained you, we pay you, we own your brain and therefore own all your ideas.’’
Grocela, a urological surgeon who also teaches at Harvard Medical School, acknowledges that every two years he signs a contract with Mass. General that gives the hospital system ownership rights to his inventions. But Grocela says the policy can’t be applied to what he does at home, on his own time.
The lawsuit also alleges that Partners’ research division violated Grocela’s privacy by sharing with outside parties personal medical information he had divulged to Partners officials in the course of briefing them about personal work.
Partners, the state’s largest hospital and physicians organization, has filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed. Company vice president Rich Copp would not discuss Grocela’s complaint, citing the ongoing litigation, except to dispute that Toneguzzo made the “we own your brain’’ statement.
The case, scheduled for a May 15 hearing before Judge Peter M. Lauriat, focuses on Partners’ low-profile Research Ventures & Licensing division, which oversees about 3,000 physicians, scientists, and investigators who develop and test new medical treatments, devices, and diagnostics that have commercial potential, according to the complaint.
Partners’ research unit generated revenue of nearly $1 billion in its 2010 fiscal year, about 10 percent of it from licensing products, the lawsuit says. Mass. General and its sister hospital, Brigham and Women’s, are two of the largest recipients of research grants from the National Institutes of Health.
The lawsuit was first filed a year ago, but did not become public knowledge because Grocela’s attorney, Boston lawyer Richard A. Goren, used a pseudonym for the doctor. Lauriat has since rejected Goren’s request that the case proceed anonymously, though he agreed that any personal medical information about Grocela be kept out of the public domain. Grocela’s complaint, amended in February, includes his name and seeks a trial by jury.
In filing a motion to have the case thrown out, attorneys for Partners said all the inventions cited in Grocela’s complaint “arose out of or are related to’’ his work at Mass. General even if they were built outside the hospital’s labs. The organization’s intellectual property policy “is not written in terms of where or when he conceives of any idea or whether he uses the hospital’s facilities,’’ Partners’ outside counsel Thomas F. Maffei wrote.
Grocela, in an interview, said he decided to challenge the Partners policy because he believes Partners’ licensing authorities overstepped their boundaries. “The issues are really my civil rights, my health care rights, and my privacy rights,’’ he said.
The suit asserts that no one can own Grocela’s intellectual capital, which derives from his life experiences, and that Partners should have no ownership claims to nonurological devices he creates outside the hospital at his own time and expense.
“This is collectivism stifling the individual’s innovation,’’ said Goren. “And to me, that’s what makes America great - the guys tinkering in their garage, in their basement, on their own time.’’
The intellectual property issue at the heart of the legal wrangling revolves around whether Grocela can compete with Partners on inventions he develops on his own. Goren insists that the Partners’ policy can’t be enforced under Massachusetts law if it prevents “ordinary competition.’’
‘We own your brain and therefore own all your ideas.’
While conceding doctors might have ownership rights to nonmedical devices they create, Partners contends that it owns the rights to any medical device regardless of where it is invented. “Intellectual property policies such as the one used by MGH are enforceable,’’ Maffei wrote in court papers.
Grocela seems an unlikely rebel in Boston’s medical community. He has been associated with Mass. General since 1991, first as an intern, resident, and fellow, and more recently as a senior clinical staff physician with full admitting privileges. He also conducts epidemiological studies and statistical analyses for the urology department.
But he has aspirations as an inventor and entrepreneur. Grocela studied engineering at Yale University before earning his medical degree from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. In 2009, he formed Grindstone Medical LLC to develop and market medical devices.
While Partners’ policy gives the health care system first rights to market anything its doctors create, it can waive those rights if it chooses. In such cases, ownership can be transferred to the doctors, though Partners retains the rights to royalties from any revenue that might arise. The research division in 2010 sold three inventions that Grocela had developed earlier in the decade to Grindstone in exchange for a royalty amounting to 1.5 percent of sales.
The types of devices sold to Grindstone are redacted from Grocela’s lawsuit, but the complaint indicates he tested some devices on himself because they treat his own unspecified medical conditions. Grocela said in legal filings that those health issues don’t interfere with his ability to practice medicine and that he only disclosed the personal information to the research unit to help it understand that the devices worked. But when he gained the rights to the inventions and sought to market one of them, the lawsuit alleges, an outside consultant told him she knew he had tested the device on himself.
In its response, Partners said Grocela offered no evidence that anyone in its organization leaked information about his medical condition or told outsiders he used himself as a test subject. It also maintained that disclosures Grocela made to the research office don’t constitute protected medical information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal law cited in Grocela’s complaint.
“Dr. Grocela is reaching at straws,’’ Maffei wrote in the Partners’ response.Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.