Oncologist Awarded $13 Million in Gender Discrimination Lawsuit

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

February 22, 2018

A Los Angeles oncologist has just been awarded $13 million in a gender discrimination lawsuit.

Lymphoma expert Lauren Pinter-Brown, MD, alleged that she had experienced age-based harassment and discrimination, as well as gender discrimination, and was forced to resign her position at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). She claimed that her complaints were not addressed by the university and, in fact, that there was retaliation after she complained.

UCLA argues that she was not forced out or fired and had made her own decision to leave the facility. But Pinter-Brown contends that as a result of the harassment and "intolerable working conditions" she had no other choice but to leave.

Dr Lauren Pinter-Brown

The lawsuit was filed 2 years ago, when Pinter-Brown was age 61 years, and the trial began this year on January 20.

The case was heard by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury and pitted Pinter-Brown against the Regents of the University of California.

After about 6 hours of deliberation that spanned 2 days, the jury returned with a verdict in favor of Pinter-Brown on her gender discrimination and retaliation claim. However, they sided with UCLA on the claim about age discrimination.

She was awarded about $3 million in economic damages and $10 million in noneconomic damages.

"It is hard to believe that discrimination and retaliation for discrimination are still alive in academic medicine," Pinter-Brown told Medscape Medical News. "There weren't as many women in medicine when I began my career, so it becomes even more difficult to accept this situation, as I had become more senior and more accomplished."

"I was discriminated against for being female, and it was a horrible experience," she said. "So was the court experience because it was happening all over again."

Pinter-Brown had initially sought damages of around $635,000 in past economic losses, nearly $3.9 million in future economic losses, $8.5 million in past noneconomic losses, and nearly $2.9 million in future noneconomic losses, for a total of $15,918,800 requested.

The verdict as read awarded $635,000 in past lost earnings, about $2.4 million in future earnings, $7 million in past noneconomic loss, and $3 million in future noneconomic loss ($13 million in total).

Referring to the jury, she told Medscape Medical News that "it is so shocking to me that you can take 12 people off the street, who don't know me and who I will never see again, and they heard me better than my colleagues at UCLA, who I've known for 25 years."

She added that she is "profoundly disappointed by many of my colleagues at UCLA."

Retaliation After Complaints

Pinter-Brown, who grew up in Los Angeles, has a long-standing relationship with UCLA and has been affiliated with them in one way or another for the bulk of her career. Before she ever became a physician, she worked at UCLA as a candy striper–type volunteer and eventually went on to earn her medical degree there. Pinter-Brown then completed her internship and residency in internal medicine at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and eventually joined the faculty at UCLA in 1990.

In 2005 she became director of the UCLA lymphoma program and remained in that position until she resigned in 2015.

For much of her tenure in the department, Pinter-Brown said that she was the only female. During the trial, she testified that another lymphoma specialist, Sven De Vos, MD, PhD, had continuously berated her and made her feel unsafe in the workplace.

She described an incident in 2011, in which De Vos made her feel threatened during an argument in a small, shared space. After this event, Carney R. Shegerian, Pinter-Brown's attorney, said that Pinter-Brown eventually ran her complaints up the chain to someone who UCLA purported to be a Title IX officer — but who really wasn't.

"He accused her of being a 'diva' and having a reputation of being an 'angry woman' in light of her complaints and dealings with Dr De Vos," Shegerian told Medscape Medical News.  "He then took her written complaint and placed it in a drawer, telling her that 'no one needs to know about this.' There was not an adequate investigation, let alone any kind of formal plan to address the concerns that Dr Pinter-Brown raised."

"The University just chalked it up as 'interpersonal' issues," Shegerian said.

Pinter-Brown stated that after she complained about being harassed, her supervisors took no action to correct the problem and instead turned on her.

"Immediately after I complained, I felt like it was an old-boys club even though it wasn't all boys," Pinter-Brown said. "They all got together and decided what the story was going to be, and there wasn't going to be anything I could do about it."

She told her husband that it was like being in a noose. "And the more you struggle, the tighter the noose becomes," she said, "So I decided to play dead. I limited my appearance at work, I didn't voice any concerns, I didn't ask any questions, I didn't speak up, but the retaliation continued. Even with me playing dead it continued."

Pinter-Brown stated that she was subjected to audits of her work, told how to use the services of her nurse practitioner, and told that "everyone hates you."

In another incident, she alleged that a supervisor threw a stack of paperwork in front of her, saying that "we don't want someone like you directing the UCLA lymphoma program."

Pinter-Brown also alleged another occurrence of harassment, involving a male physician who told her that "your job is not to boss the guys around."

In 2012, some of Pinter-Brown's research privileges were temporarily revoked at the discretion of a peer-review committee following a review of her research trials that raised "concerns" about her work. Pinter-Brown said that this was part of the retaliation against her, for complaining about disparate treatment. This event occurred about a month after she complained about the threatening incident with De Vos.

However, her research privileges were reinstated in October 2013.

Even though she was "playing dead," Pinter-Brown said that colleagues continued to nitpick and find fault with her performance. "Even after I showed them that their accusations weren't true, and showed them proof of that, they would never apologize or back down," she said. "They continued to act as if it was true — it was a fait accompli."

She emphasized that in 25 years, she had never had a reprimand and never had any complaints, and that her reputation was one of integrity and honesty. "For all of us, our reputation and integrity are primary," said Pinter-Brown. "That struck at my core, as a person."

Clash of Opinions

In a statement, UCLA Health and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA did not directly address the issues raised in this case or mention Pinter-Brown by name.

Instead, they noted that they were disappointed with the jury's verdict and that they are reviewing the decision and considering all available options.

"UCLA Health and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA are committed to maintaining a workplace free from discrimination, intimidation, retaliation or harassment of any kind. Ensuring a respectful and inclusive environment is essential to the research and education carried out at UCLA's medical school," they noted. "Discrimination based on gender, race or any other basis is a violation of both the law and university policy and a betrayal of UCLA's values as a community."

The statement went on to add that "faculty, staff and students are encouraged to come forward with concerns about the workplace environment. Allegations of inappropriate conduct are promptly reviewed and appropriately addressed, consistent with UCLA and University of California policies and procedures."

Jason Mills, a member of the law firm that represented UCLA, pointed out that much of the conflict brewing between Pinter-Brown and De Vos stemmed from their differences in how clinical trials should be conducted. He also pointed out that some of the medical committee members became concerned about how Pinter-Brown's trials were proceeding, which culminated in a suspension of her research privileges in June 2012.

But Shegerian disagreed. "There was substantial evidence of overt and subtle conduct that illustrated his differential treatment of Dr Pinter-Brown in comparison to his male counterparts," he said.  "More importantly, she complained several times to her division leaders, who in turned blamed her for Dr De Vos' conduct."

Further conduct showed a perpetuation of Dr De Vos' conduct despite Dr. Pinter-Brown's attempts to avoid him, Shegerian pointed out.  "Dr Pinter-Brown was forced to change her approach to work and her physical availability at work because of her employer's inability to address her complaint," he said.  "This ultimately culminated in her having to leave her career there."

In court testimony, however, several female physicians in the Department of Medicine described a fair, equitable, and professional workplace environment for women. "They noted several women in leadership positions, including the first woman to serve as director of a national cancer research center, who held the position at UCLA for more than 20 years before recently retiring," said Phil Hampton, a spokesperson for UCLA Health/David Geffen School of Medicine.

"Two female colleagues testified that when UCLA looked into Dr Pinter-Brown's concerns, she denied that the concerns were gender-based," he told Medscape Medical News.

 Hampton also pointed out that Pinter-Brown conceded at trial that she, along with others conducting similar work, was reviewed as part of routine audits conducted consistent with UCLA policy. "Testimony at trial established that her clinical research privileges were suspended for a year but fully reinstated after she submitted a corrective action plan," he said.

Derailed Career

In his opening statement, Shegerian told the court that the "evidence will show a career was derailed, a career was destroyed."

Evidence will show a career was derailed, a career was destroyed. Carney R. Shegerian

 

"A physician should not have to change who they are, how they interact, and how they deal with their work environment just because their complaints of discrimination and harassment went unaddressed," he said.  "But that's exactly what happened here with Dr Pinter-Brown."

In December 2015, Pinter-Brown negotiated a transfer to the Division of Hematology/Oncology, Department of Medicine, University of California Irvine School of Medicine, which is located south of Los Angeles in Orange County.

"I am very grateful that there was a place that wanted me, and I have the ability to do research, see patients, and teach fellows and residents, which is what I really enjoy," she said. "But I do believe that this has been very damaging to my career.

For one thing, given the distance and the heavy traffic in Southern California, it can take 2 and a half hours or more to get to Irvine. "I live in Los Angeles, and can't just move there," she said. "My husband is also a physician and he has a practice here, I have family responsibilities here, so I have to commute."

As a result, Pinter-Brown is only able to work part time, and, to cut down on the commute, she stays over in Orange County during her work week. "It's a strange lifestyle," she said. "It's like going on a trip. I pack a bag and then I'm gone for 3 days. It's not terrible and at least I still have a career, but it's not what I would have chosen."

But the main issue is leaving behind 25 years of work at UCLA. "I had a very large clinic and had 25 years of experience at UCLA," she said. "I have done all my research on T-cell lymphoma at UCLA and 25 years of caring for patients there. I don't have access to my work there."

She noted that she is beginning to conduct research at her new job, but it's not just a matter of picking up where she left off. "And obviously, my clinic has to be recreated," said Pinter-Brown.

She hopes that her story will help others in similar situations, to know that it is possible for one person to stand up to a big system. "I would like people to feel empowered by what happened to me, and for people to feel that you have a voice."

She does acknowledge that many individuals will usually leave a job when working conditions become intolerable and tend not to fight it. "If it was earlier in my career, I might have done just that," she contends. "It would have been more difficult, and I would have been afraid of being blacklisted, and not being able to find other work. But at this point, I wasn't going to just fade away."

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