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Surgeon awarded $1.6m in sex bias suit (MS)

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Brigham, her boss liable for damages

By Liz Kowalczyk
Globe Staff / February 25, 2009

A jury yesterday awarded $1.6 million to a female neurosurgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, finding that she was subject to a hostile work environment and that, when she complained, the hospital retaliated against her.

The jury’s verdict comes after a seven-week trial in a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by Dr. Sagun Tuli against the hospital and her boss, Dr. Arthur Day, the chairman of the neurosurgery department.

Tuli, 39, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, said in court documents that Day repeatedly made demeaning statements to her while she was operating, telling her during a surgery in May 2007: "You are just a girl. Are you sure you can do that?"

On another occasion, at a hospital dinner in 2004, Tuli said Day asked her whether she would "get up on the table and dance for us to show the female residents how to behave?"

The US District Court jury, made up of seven men and two women, rejected Tuli’s contention that the hospital discriminated against her by not promoting her, not supporting her research, and paying her less than her male peers. The jurors decided Tuli was paid fairly by the hospital – even as they found that the overall work environment was hostile.

Tuli, who specializes in spine surgery and has worked at the Brigham for more than six years, cried and hugged her mother after the verdict was read. Several Brigham nurses at the trial also cried and embraced her. Day was not in the courtroom; his lawyer said he was at work.

Tuli, represented by Margaret Pinkham, said she was relieved the trial was over and grateful for the jury’s decision. "It’s been a very stressful time," she said in an interview outside the courtroom of Judge Nancy Gertner.

"I put my reputation and career at risk by going through this," she said later, adding that she pressed the case to help other women stand up to harassing behavior. "I just hope the hospital changes and has zero tolerance for these types of comments."

The jurors found that Tuli was subject to harassment, ridicule, intimidation, or other abusive conduct that was motivated at least in part by her gender or national origin or both – and that it was severe enough to interfere with her work performance. Tuli was born in India. The bulk of the award – $1 million – was to compensate her for working under these conditions.

The jury awarded Tuli $600,000 based on its finding that the hospital retaliated against her for complaining, by requiring her to be evaluated by outside physicians to see whether she was fit to keep practicing at the hospital. The jury decided that Day intentionally interfered with her business relationship with the hospital and that he slandered her. The jury awarded her $20,001 for Day’s interference. Day is responsible for paying that amount, while the hospital was assessed the remaining damages of $1.6 million.

Day, 61, a nationally known neurosurgeon, has been associate chief of the neurosurgery department since 2002 and chairman since July 2007.

His lawyer, John Ryan of Boston, e-mailed a statement to the Globe, saying that "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 were accompanied by awards of only $1, including the claim of slander. Dr. Day is an outstanding neurosurgeon whose character is best exemplified in the thousands of patients whom he has cared for during his career."

Ryan said that "there are flaws in certain of the jury’s findings" and that he plans to appeal. He declined to elaborate on his reasons.

Peter Brown, Brigham spokesman, said Day’s employment status at the hospital "has not changed."

In a statement e-mailed to the Globe, the hospital said it wants "to review the court proceedings and the jury’s findings in this complicated case before we make any decisions or statements. The leadership team at the hospital stands for and believes in a work environment that must support and respect every member of the hospital community. These tenets are a cornerstone of the hospital’s mission to care for patients, their families, and every one of the employees. We will continue our work to strengthen that commitment."

Several employment lawyers said it is unusual for a sex discrimination case to go to trial or for the details of a claim to become public, partly because employees are afraid of retaliation.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at