A former Caltech research scholar with an expertise in battery research was fired in 2016 for exposing misappropriation of funds from the Department of Energy, a lawyer told a jury Wednesday, but an attorney for the institution said the plaintiff was let go because his goals for an improved rechargeable battery were unrealistic.
The two sides presented their opening arguments to a Los Angeles Superior Court jury hearing trial of Farshid Roumi’s lawsuit, which alleges retaliation and wrongful termination.
“They ruined his reputation, they destroyed it,” plaintiff’s attorney Mark Quigley said.
While people once jumped at the chance to do business with Roumi because of the quality of his work, Wednesday they shy away because of what Caltech has done to his character, Quigley said.
“Now, he’s done,” his attorney said.
But Caltech attorney Moez Kaba said the school gave Roumi every chance to prove himself with the S-cell battery project, the aim of which was to significantly improve performance without a costly and time-consuming change in battery chemistry.
“They did want to help him and they provided support every step of the way,” Kaba said.
Roumi, a 39-year-old Iranian emigre, was a doctoral candidate at Caltech in 2004-10, according to Quigley. The plaintiff worked as a postdoctoral scholar in 2010-14 and in 2012 co-founded Parthian Energy LLC with the goal of increasing the reliability and performance of rechargeable batteries, according to his court papers.
“They loved him,” Quigley said of Roumi’s Caltech supervisors, adding that the professors convinced him to stay at the institution rather than leave and work exclusively at his company.
Following negotiations with Caltech professor Michael Hoffman, Roumi agreed to transfer funding he received from the Department of Energy from Parthean to the school for the S-cell battery project, according to his court papers. In 2015, Caltech hired two researchers to work with Roumi on the project, but the plaintiff soon learned that they were working on unrelated projects under the direction of Hoffman, Quigley told jurors.
When Roumi objected to his assistants being used to help Hoffman while being paid with federal money meant for a specific use, he was met with delays and roadblocks in the S-cell project, Quigley said. Roumi was fired in July 2016 and his lab was shut down, according to Quigley.
But Kaba said others lost their job at the same time as Roumi and the reason was a loss of funding, not retaliation. In the interim three years, Roumi still has not completed the S-cell battery project on his own, Kaba said.
“This was a simply a project Dr. Roumi could not achieve,” Kaba said.