UM professor, medical school in legal battle over cancer research endowment

L. Austin Weeks and his wife Marta, philanthropists who created an endowment for prostate cancer research at the University of Miami.
L. Austin Weeks and his wife Marta, philanthropists who created an endowment for prostate cancer research at the University of Miami.

Thirty-five years ago, a wealthy petroleum geologist donated $1 million to the University of Miami for prostate cancer research. The endowment has supported the development of life-saving cancer drugs but in the last few years has become entangled in a complicated legal battle pitting the university against a long-time professor who it maintains was performing “unsatisfactory” work.

In a lawsuit stretching back to 2013, Norman Block, a 78-year-old physician and tenured professor, has sued the Miller School of Medicine, arguing that UM misused funds from the endowment and slashed his salary in what he contends is retaliation for complaining.

In documents filed in Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, Block accused the university of allowing the disbursement of $440,000 from the endowment without his consent as endowment chairholder, money he says was used in part for severance pay for laid-off cancer researchers. Block also claims that the university has cut his pay by 10 percent a year since 2012 after he voiced concerns about how the university used the money.

“They are trying to twist my arm to drop the lawsuit,” Block, a urologic cancer specialist who has been a UM professor since the early 1970s, told the Miami Herald.

UM rejects Block’s claims. A spokeswoman said she couldn’t comment on the details of pending litigation as a matter of policy but insisted that the university has not made any unauthorized disbursements and that Block has been paid “all compensation to which he is entitled.”

“[T]he University plans to vigorously defend this case through its conclusion and is confident that it will be successful in that defense,” said Jennifer Smith, director of media relations at the Miller School of Medicine.

The dispute largely comes down to the interpretation of a single paragraph in a letter that the donor, L. Austin Weeks, sent to the university in 1981 to set up the endowment. Block had recently helped Weeks beat cancer, and the grateful patient wanted to do something to contribute to Block’s research, according to Block.

Weeks told him, “Norman, you’ve saved my life, I trust you, whatever you need to use it for,” Block recalled.

In his letter to UM, Weeks suggested that Block be named chairholder of the endowment and authorized the chairholder to use the investment income and 10 percent of the original donation to support research and the chairholder’s salary. He added that “Further invasions of principal are permissible with the prior approval of the Vice President for Medical Affairs and Chairman of the Department.”

Weeks and his wife later donated an additional $200,000, bringing the endowment up to $1.2 million. The Weekses have been big donors at UM, and their names are on a performance center and a music library at the Frost School of Music.

Block did not initially take much money out of the endowment because he had other sources of funding for his research. In the mid-2000s, however, Block helped to recruit Andrew Schally, a doctor who had won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine in 1977, and used funds from the Weeks endowment to support Schally’s research at the Miller School of Medicine. Block initially tried to collaborate with Schally while continuing to see his own cancer patients but quickly realized that he couldn’t do both.

“I started helping Dr. Schally with research and ended up working 18-hour days seven days a week,” Block recalled.

So Block, who lives in Broward County, moved over to the department of pathology, where Schally works, and used the Weeks endowment to pay for his own salary. Then, he said, he devoted much of his time to applying for grants and running the administrative side of Schally’s research operation. Schally declined to comment for this article.

Everything ran smoothly until 2012, when, amid well-publicized financial struggles, the university informed Block that the medical school, which had been contributing $150,000 a year to Schally’s research, would no longer be able to provide the financial support. It was during this period that the medical school laid off researchers working with Schally and took $441,723 from the endowment without Block’s approval, according to the lawsuit. Block said that at least a part of the money was used for severance pay.

In legal documents, the university contends that Block had overspent from the Weeks endowment account, however, creating a $441,723 deficit. The university says that Block had refused to authorize the funds needed to cover the deficit, which included compensation for researchers working with Schally. University officials approved the transfer to cover the deficit, according to a motion filed by the university.

Over the years, Block had attempted to clarify the somewhat ambiguous language in Weeks’ letter. He met with the vice president for medical affairs in 1987 and documented their conversation in a memo stating that Block was the “sole listed signatory” for specific accounts tied to the Weeks endowment. In 2006, an associate treasurer for the university confirmed in an email to Block that this was still the case.

In a motion filed as part of the lawsuit, however, the university maintains that while as chairholder Block is the sole signatory for a spending account connected to the endowment, the university has oversight over the endowment as a whole. In a 2013 letter to one of Block’s lawyers, the university stated that the department chair and the vice president for medical affairs were allowed to authorize disbursements from the endowment. The university has also argued that Block’s claim of a “fiduciary relationship” between himself and the university does not have legal standing.

As for Block’s salary, the university and the doctor have differing accounts of why it was cut.

In a letter from August 2012, the chair of the pathology department informed Block that his work had “not met expectations” and that the university would be decreasing his salary by 10 percent.

“[Y]our efforts in the areas of extramural funding, publications, and philanthropy, have been unsatisfactory,” the letter reads, adding that Block had declined to meet face-to-face to discuss his performance.

Block believes that the salary cuts were retaliatory and maintains that although he had not filed the lawsuit when his salary was first cut, he had objected to the university’s use of endowment funds without his approval. Block declined to provide his salary to the Herald, but for the 2012-2013 fiscal year it was $247,475 plus over $55,000 in benefits, according to a motion filed by UM’s lawyers.

In documents submitted as part of the lawsuit, the university argues that as tenured faculty, Block is only guaranteed a base salary and that the rest of his pay is performance-based.

Block filed the lawsuit in September 2013, asking for damages including lost wages and “any lost principal and income sustained by the Endowment.” After three years, it is still unclear whether and when the the lawsuit will go to trial.