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09 March, 2009

US neurosurgeon awarded $1.6 million in gender bias suit

News Report
India West

A female neurosurgeon was awarded $1.6 million by a Massachusetts jury Feb. 24 in her gender bias and national origin discrimination suit against Brigham and Women’s Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

A U.S. District Court jury found that Dr. Sagun Tuli (photo below left), Harvard’s only female spinal neurosurgeon and one of a handful in the U.S., had been subjected to numerous instances of harassment, ridicule, intimidation and abusive conduct, largely by Brigham and Women’s neurosurgery department chairman Dr. Arthur Day (photo below right).

The jury, however, rejected Tuli’s claims that she had been paid less than her male colleagues and denied a promotion, but did find that the hospital had retaliated against her for complaining about Day’s behavior.

Tuli told India-West she had complained to superiors about Day’s behavior for several years before filing suit. John Ryan, Day’s attorney, told India-West that the neurosurgery chief denies all allegations of inappropriate conduct.

In her suit, Tuli alleged that Day had made sexist comments, including questioning her ability to perform her duties because she was “just a girl.” Day allegedly also repeatedly referred to Tuli as “his lover,” and in 2004, at a graduation dinner for medical residents in training, allegedly said, “Sagun, can you get up on the table and dance to show the other female residents how to behave?”

In 2007, during a routine credentialing review process, Day questioned Tuli’s mental health and decided that her credentials would be renewed only if she began to see a psychiatrist. Tuli got an injunction intervention and filed suit shortly after, alleging slander — among her complaints — for Day’s statements during the credentialing process.

Drs. Malini Narayanan and Deepa Soni – both neurosurgeons at Brigham and Women’s Hospital — had also filed complaints against Day. Narayanan settled her suit in 2008 for an undisclosed amount and has since left the hospital, while Soni’s suit is still pending, Margaret Pinkham, Tuli’s attorney, told India-West.

Tuli continues to report to Day, said Pinkham, adding that she has filed a request for an injunction to have Tuli, 39, report to someone else. Brigham may also change its reporting structure independently of the injunction, said Pinkham.

Day’s attorney Ryan told India-West that he was planning to appeal the jury’s verdict. “On behalf of Dr. Day, we are intent on pursuing all appropriate legal process to have the verdict reversed.”

“Dr. Day is an outstanding neurosurgeon whose character is best exemplified in the thousands of patients whom he has cared for during his career. He has continuously denied any inappropriate conduct, and we will pursue all of his legal options to establish that fact,” said Ryan in an e-mail. “While we are disappointed in several of the jury's findings, we are extremely pleased that they found no discriminatory conduct, that Dr. Tuli was paid fairly and that a number of the findings regarding Dr. Day were accompanied by nominal awards of only $1, including the claim of slander,” said Ryan.

Day — who came to Brigham in 2002 and is considered one of the country’s best brain surgeons — was ordered by the jury to pay $20,001 for intentionally interfering with Tuli’s business relationship with the hospital. Brigham is responsible for paying the balance of the award.

Tuli told India-West that the hospital, by continuing to have her report to Day, was sending a signal to all its female employees: “We never cared about you and we still don’t. Every woman there should be outraged.”

The 39-year-old, who trained at the University of Toronto and has worked at Brigham since 2001, said she went to several people over a period of four years before filing suit in December 2007. “I had gone to just about everyone in authority and nobody listened or did anything,” she said.

Day was never placed on administrative leave, despite the three pending suits against him, said Tuli.

The daughter of Toronto residents Lakhbir and Parveen Tuli said that she was offered a much larger settlement earlier, but wanted to take the case to trial. “I didn’t want to just shut up and take their money. The only way anything is ever going to change is if women stand up and say what they’ve experienced,” she said.

There are only 194 board-certified female neurosurgeons in the U.S., roughly six percent of the neurosurgical workforce. The organization Women in Neurosurgery conducted a survey of its members last year; more than half of those surveyed contended there was a glass ceiling for women in neurosurgery, while 87 percent felt there was gender discrimination in the field.

In a 2008 paper for the Journal of Neurosurgery, 12 female neurosurgeons concluded that an “old boy’s network” still prevails in the field. (Courtesy: New America Media)

Readers may also see Boston Globe report of April 1, 2008 which says: “Sworn statements from four employees who worked with the chief of neurosurgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital paint a picture of “an old boys’ network that remains alive and well” in one of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals, the lawyer for a surgeon contends in a sex discrimination lawsuit.”

The full report can be seen at the Nursing Link website.


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