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Harvard is not obligated to pay the legal fees of convicted Chemistry professor Charles M. Lieber, Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled Monday.
Lieber was convicted in federal court last month of lying to federal authorities about his ties to China’s Thousand Talents Program and committing tax fraud. His lawyers have vowed to keep fighting in the case.
In a 17-page ruling, Massachusetts’ highest court found that Harvard has “broad statutory authority” to approve or deny requests for the advancement of employees’ legal fees.
Lieber was charged in January 2020 with making fraudulent statements to federal investigators about his relationship with the TTP, a state-sponsored Chinese government program aimed at recruiting scientists from across the globe.
In October of that year, Lieber sued Harvard in Middlesex County Superior Court, claiming the school broke its contractual obligation to indemnify his legal defense fees. In an opposition brief Harvard filed later that month, lawyers for the University argued that Lieber’s willful dishonesty to Harvard officials and the federal government violated internal University policies and excluded him from the school’s indemnification policy.
The policy states that Harvard will cover expenses incurred by a “Qualified Person” acting in a “Covered Role” for criminal defense proceedings, unless it is “reasonably likely that the person seeking indemnification will not be entitled to indemnification under this policy,” according to Lieber’s suit.
In a November 2021 appellate hearing before the Supreme Judicial Court, David R. Suny, one of Lieber’s attorneys on the case, argued the policy’s exception of people who are “reasonably likely” to “not be entitled to indemnification” is “ambiguous.”
But Kimberly S. Budd, the Supreme Judicial Court’s chief justice, wrote in Monday’s ruling that the sentence in question is “entirely straightforward.”
According to court documents, Lieber first asked Harvard to cover his legal costs in March 2020. Harvard Executive Vice President Katherine N. Lapp denied the request in May of that year, stating that Lieber’s charges were not related to activities within the scope of his employment. She added that Harvard decided it was “reasonably likely” that Lieber was not “entitled to indemnification” because he had “not acted in good faith” nor in the “best interests of the University.”
“Here, Lieber’s request for advancement of indemnifiable fees and expenses has been denied, as Harvard has determined that it is reasonably likely that, when all is said and done, he will be found to be ineligible for indemnification,” Budd wrote in the Monday ruling. “Contrary to Lieber’s suggestion, that determination was made consistent with the plain meaning of the policy.”
In an emailed statement, Suny wrote that he and Lieber are considering further options.
“We disagree with the Court’s decision, and are assessing options as to next steps,” he wrote.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment. Lieber has been on paid administrative leave since his arrest in January 2020.
—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.
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