Cedars-Sinai faces sexual harassment suit over surgeon's conduct toward nurse
As discussion of sexual harassment in healthcare grows, an ambulatory surgery center charge nurse has sued a prominent Los Angeles eye surgeon and the Cedars-Sinai Health System for battery, sexual harassment and discrimination.Nurse Paula Rickey alleges she was punished and forced to resign for reporting the incident, which was captured on surveillance video, while the surgeon, Dr. Kerry Kourosh Assil, received mild or no punishment. She claims that Cedars-Sinai, which owns the 90210 Surgery Center, failed to prevent or correct the harassment and discrimination. "I was in a really unsafe and uncomfortable work environment, and I ultimately had to resign," said Rickey, who's worried that her lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, will hurt her ability to find another nursing job in a market dominated by Cedars-Sinai. "I came forward to try to help other women who either have been victimized by him or by other physicians." Assil's attorney, Richard Decker, declined to comment on the lawsuit's specific allegations. "People with weak cases air them in the media," he said. Cedars-Sinai did not comment on the lawsuit directly. "We take great care to protect Cedars-Sinai employees as they do their work, and that means we take complaints seriously, investigate them thoroughly and act promptly," it said in a written statement. Rickey alleges that on July 17, 2017, Assil, the center's medical director, came up behind her as she was leaving the OR and shoved her hard at the base of her head. He was infuriated, the suit says, because she had asked him whether he was done with his case so the cleaning crew could prepare the OR for the next surgeon. According to the suit, he then grabbed her arm and said, "I know I can do this because I know you like the abuse." The suit alleges that Assil was condescending and arrogant toward colleagues and staff, particularly women, and had engaged in extramarital affairs with some female employees, rewarding those who acquiesced and penalizing those who did not. Rickey, who had worked at the center for five years, claims in the suit that Assil's sexual desire for her was a motivating factor behind the alleged battery incident. After the incident, "I left that day feeling incredibly defeated and with really low self-worth," she said in an interview. "That persisted over time, motivating me to say I have to do something." About a month later, she reported the incident to her two female supervisors. Then she discovered that it had been caught on a surveillance video, which she sent to the Cedars-Sinai board of directors. After that, however, the only action taken was she was moved to a different practice group and had her hours cut, while Assil continued practicing as before with no apparent disciplinary action, the suit says. Cedars-Sinai declined to say whether it had taken disciplinary action against the surgeon. "To an outside observer, nothing has changed," said David Affeld, Rickey's attorney, who notes his client was lucky from a legal perspective that the encounter was caught on the security video. Since that July incident, there's been a wave of sexual harassment allegations by women against powerful men in various industries, though not so much in the healthcare industry. The so-called Me Too movement exposing sexual misconduct has started gaining momentum in healthcare as well, particularly in academic medicine, through Twitter conversations at #metoomedicine and #metoosurgery. A study published in JAMA last year found that 30% of female clinician-researchers reported experiencing sexual harassment. Dr. Reshma Jagsi, the lead author, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine this month that medicine is prone to sexual harassment and discrimination due to its history of male domination, hierarchical structure with strong power differentials, late-night hours and easy access to beds. But standing up to harassment by senior male medical leaders is hard, as she herself found, due to the risk of retaliation and damage to a woman's professional career. "My intuition is that the problem is at least as bad in medicine as elsewhere," Jagsi wrote. Rickey said she was extremely shaken by the July incident and by the lack of disciplinary action against Assil by Cedars-Sinai. And she was hurt that no one ever offered her an apology or asked her if she was OK. She personally had not experienced anything like this before but says she knows many other nurses who've faced abuse or mistreatment by physicians. She feels encouraged by the emergence of the Me Too movement. "It's empowering to know that as a woman there are many others experiencing this stuff and we're not alone," she said.
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