Harvard Medical School Prof. Gender Bias Lawsuit Moves Forward

Defendants' motions to move case to arbitration denied

After years of allegedly suffering sexist treatment at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School professor Carol A. Warfield may finally have something to smile about.

Warfield, who filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the hospital’s CEO and Chief of Surgery last March, received notice last Friday that the defendants’ motions to move the case to arbitration have been denied by the Suffolk Superior Court. Barring a settlement, the case will now go to a trial by jury.

Warfield’s complaint charges Beth Israel’s then-Chief of Surgery Josef E. Fischer and CEO Paul F. Levy with years of sexist treatment culminating with her demotion from Chief of Anesthesiology, a position she had assumed in 2000.

Karen Schwartzman, a spokesperson for Warfield, hailed the recent legal development as a “significant victory.”

“This complaint involves allegations of egregious conduct that Dr. Warfield feels should be aired in a public forum,” Schwartzman said.

The legal process now calls for the defendants to respond to the filed complaint within 20 days. Warfield’s attorneys have sent notices to several people who will give sworn depositions during the week of Oct. 20, Schwartzman said.

One of Warfield’s lawyers, Laura R. Studen, said in an e-mail in July that for the plaintiff, a jury trial is always preferred for a discrimination case, though most cases are settled out of court. Studen could not be reached for comment for this article.

Fischer’s spokesperson, James G. McManus, said that Fischer plans to appeal the court’s decision within the next month.

Fischer is represented by Richard D. Glovsky at Prince, Lobel, Glovsky & Tye, McManus said. (The Boston law firm also represents The Crimson.) Glovsky did not return calls for comment yesterday.

Warfield’s lawsuit alleges that even prior to Fischer’s appointment in the fall of 2001, he had already earned a reputation for being abusive to and unable to work with women in a professional setting. In one incident, Fischer allegedly slapped a female nurse.

During his time at Beth Israel, Fischer’s habit of demeaning his female colleagues allegedly worsened over time, and Warfield stated in the complaint that his personal treatment of her became “increasingly abusive.”

Warfield claimed that Fischer would shut doors in her face, insist that she be accompanied by male subordinates, and purposefully respond to male colleagues with no inclination of acknowledging her when she spoke.

In addition, at a lecture given to the nurses working at Beth Israel, Fischer allegedly expressed his preference for male residents, stating that they should be “tall, light skinned, western taught American men.”

Disconcerted by Fischer’s behavior at the workplace, Warfield claimed she turned to Levy for support on several occasions, to no avail. Warfield alleges that Levy abetted the continued gender discrimination by repeatedly failing to address the issues Warfield brought to light.

Finally, in the summer of 2007, soon after returning from sabbatical leave, Warfield’s appointment as department chair was terminated via e-mail, effective immediately.

The filing of the lawsuit was the first in a series of events leading to Fischer’s resignation this summer. Some hospital executives discovered that Fischer had given surgery department funds to his wife, who organized department events, helped new surgeons find homes, and showed their families around Boston, according to The Boston Globe. The funds—$12,000 a year in all—were later returned.

Levy told The Globe in an interview in July that he asked for Fischer’s resignation because his management style was no longer appropriate for the hospital.

“Dr. Fischer made very important contributions to this hospital, but over time it became clear that his approach to managing the department was not consistent with our current direction and emphasis,” Levy told The Globe.

Levy sent a letter to the Beth Israel community in late June announcing Fischer’s resignation and lauding his accomplishments during his time as Chief of Surgery. Levy wrote that Fischer, who received his M.D. from HMS in 1961, restored “first-class surgical care and education” at Beth Israel by reducing inefficiencies, revamping the operation rooms, and campaigning for error-free patient care.

Fischer is no longer working at the hospital, but he remains on faculty at the Medical School. The search for a new chief of surgery is expected to take several months, according to Levy’s e-mail.

Fischer declined repeated requests to comment for this article via e-mail, citing a fear of “getting into matters which involvew [sic] the litigation,” but added that he received the American Surgical Association’s Gold Medallion for a lifetime of scientific achievement this year.

—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at junewu@fas.harvard.edu.