An eye surgeon who was once the highest-ranking Black physician in a leadership role at Palo Alto Medical Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the medical provider and its parent company, Sutter Health, for allegedly violating California law by maintaining a racially toxic workplace, according to a civil complaint filed last month in San Francisco County Superior Court.
Dr. Omondi Nyong'o, who has worked for Sutter Health for 13 years, is a pediatric surgical ophthalmologist and medical director of philanthropy. He was the first and only Black physician to chair any department within the Palo Alto Medical Foundation region of Sutter Health, according to the June 22 complaint, which Nyong'o discussed in a Medium post.
Yet, for years, he has been subject to a pattern of racial discrimination, including pay and promotion discrimination, demotion, biased reviews, heightened scrutiny and racial harassment, different standards of behavior and unfair discipline, according to the lawsuit.
Nyong'o alleges violations of the state's Fair Employment and Housing Act, Fair Pay Act, Health and Safety Code and Unfair Competition Law, in addition to a breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit names Sutter Health, Palo Alto Medical Foundation and the Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group in Los Altos, as defendants.
Nyong'o filed a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing on Jan. 15, 2021, which found he had a right to sue. Attorneys from Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP are representing him in the suit.
Out of 354 doctors in leadership positions throughout Sutter, only three are Black and they are in the lowest, "Tier 1" leadership positions, according to the lawsuit. Nyong'o was promoted to a higher "Tier 2" position in 2015 at Sutter and was the only Black physician to ever be promoted to this higher level. Only three other physicians of color achieved this rank out of 33 Tier 2 leaders, according to the lawsuit.
Black physicians in general have allegedly been subjected to racially charged statements by white colleagues and those in higher positions, according to the lawsuit. Complaints about biased treatment were met with accusations of "aggressiveness," being "intimidating" and being "disruptive." They were allegedly told to see a psychologist when they pointed out the accusations were baseless. Black physicians who wear their hair naturally and nonrelaxed were allegedly discriminated against.
Early in his career, Nyong'o's superior allegedly praised him for "not being like" another more senior Black doctor who has "a chip on his shoulder." Nyong'o was allegedly warned not to become like the more senior Black doctor and also develop a "chip on (his) shoulder" because his superior could tell "you two are friends because you are the same people/race."
In the fall of 2017, a current, unnamed Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group board member who noted the lack of Black leaders and lack of corporate support stated to Nyong'o that "people like you (meaning, Black people)" might be able to enter leadership again "in another ten years," according to the lawsuit.
The situation began to unravel for Nyong'o, who received an additional tier promotion, after two white superiors instructed him to implement a plan they had developed for a "big intervention" of a clinic with some physicians who they considered had "bad attitudes." Some of those physicians were to be reassigned. After Nyong'o and one of his white superiors met with one of the physicians to discuss the reassignment, the physicians' group at the clinic became upset and complained to the Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group board of directors.
Nyong'o, who said he was following orders, was subsequently demoted while his two white superiors were not disciplined, according to the lawsuit. He was stripped of his Tier 2 and 3 leadership designations and was placed in a regular clinical position without any leadership titles and with a nearly 40% loss of pay.
One of the superiors later explained to him that Nyong'o did not do anything wrong, but that this was just the way things had to be in order to move forward, according to the lawsuit. Nyong'o's leadership position was then filled by two white physicians.
Sutter also allegedly interfered with Nyong'o's ability to build his practice after he was demoted. He was only allowed additional new shifts on Saturdays to make up for his lost income. He was instructed not to take the elevators because the white doctors would be "uncomfortable" seeing him there. Nyong'o was therefore only able to use the back stairs to access the clinic, according to the lawsuit.
One of the doctors who replaced Nyong'o in his leadership role allegedly told Nyong'o that he was not going to invite him to a department-wide meeting because the leader intended to discuss Nyong'o "behind his back" and he did not want Nyong'o present. Although Nyong'o replied that the plan was inappropriate and hostile, and that he did not agree to it, the Tier 2 leader ignored Nyong'o's concern and held the department meeting. Nyong'o learned of the meeting from another doctor of color who noticed that Nyong'o's name was missing from the invitation list, according to the lawsuit. The effect allegedly demoralized the other physicians.
"Doctors of color informed Dr. Nyong'o that they were dismayed and shocked to observe Dr. Nyong'o (be) treated with such disrespect, and found the message chilling for them," the lawsuit said.
Nyong'o was also allegedly being pushed out of the clinic. In January 2020, when he returned from his winter holiday break, Nyong'o found that leadership had dismantled his equipment and repurposed the room he had been using for four years, effectively kicking him out of his office space with no warning. He no longer had his own workspace and couldn't productively care for his patients, according to the lawsuit.
Hospital leadership granted Nyong'o's request for his own office three weeks later. However, weeks later, he was placed on a performance-review plan, which characterized his complaints to his senior leaders "in racially coded language, casting him as an angry Black man, and describing his complaints as 'intimidating, aggressive, and not collaborative,''' according to the lawsuit.
The performance-review designation had a chilling effect on his career. He applied for an open CEO position, writing to a white Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group board member to ask how he could apply. The board member allegedly rebuffed him, and he was later informed that he couldn't apply because of the performance review, according to the lawsuit.
After Nyong'o filed the charge of discrimination with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging systemic discrimination against Black doctors and professionals of color at Sutter, he was excluded from strategy meetings and communications related to philanthropy, although he remained the medical director of philanthropy, according to the lawsuit.
This past February, Sutter announced a "Professional Conduct Policy," which would discipline clinicians for an array of "vaguely defined 'disruptive behavior,'" the lawsuit said.
"The policy made no exceptions for whistleblowers or for those challenging bias or harassment. Instead, the new disciplinary policy ominously warned that behavior would be considered 'disruptive' if it involved, for example, 'publicly disparaging members of the team or the institution' or if the employee 'fail(ed) to participate in any workplace investigation whether related to oneself or another,'" the lawsuit said.
On April 30, Nyong'o learned that the new white male CEO canceled Nyong'o's planned promotion from Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group medical director of philanthropy to Palo Alto Medical Foundation-wide medical director of philanthropy, according to the lawsuit.
Reached by email on Tuesday, a Sutter Health spokesperson said the organization "takes these allegations very seriously."
"We deny having taken or participated in any discriminatory or retaliatory conduct against Dr. Nyong'o or any of our physician partners or our own employees. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind — racial or otherwise — and are committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce, and a work environment where all of our physicians, nurses and staff are treated fairly, with dignity and respect, and provided the opportunity to reach their full potential. We take pride in being an equitable and inclusive employer and partner to the medical professionals who work with us and work proactively and responsively to continuously improve in this area."
Nyong'o said in his June 22 Medium post that he reluctantly feels he must bring the lawsuit to shed light on the treatment of Black physicians and to hopefully create meaningful change.
"I, and other Black doctors, have spent years trying unsuccessfully to work for positive change within the system. But after watching countless Black and allied colleagues raise diversity concerns, which leadership advised were unwelcome and which led to multiple incidents of retaliation, I've reluctantly concluded that Sutter will not authentically embrace Black professionals through internal channels. Because I do not think there is any other viable means for effecting change, and because so many of my colleagues are not able to raise their voices for fear of further retaliation, today I stepped forward to file (the lawsuit) seeking accountability and reform at Sutter," he wrote.
Nyong'o's attorneys said in the lawsuit that a disproportionate number of doctors of color at Sutter have been subjected to "disproportionate" discipline, had their income reduced, lost pay opportunities provided to white doctors, were denied promotions or were asked to leave or forced out through hostility, scrutiny, or "absurd" discipline.
"The racist environment that permeates Sutter also limits opportunities for other Black doctors, impairs their ability to achieve their potential professionally and financially, and subjects them to racial trauma at work," the attorneys wrote.
"Dr. Nyong'o's Black colleagues have worked extraordinarily hard over the course of their medical careers only to find that their accomplishments are devalued and that there is a glass ceiling for Black doctors at Sutter. The Black doctors at Sutter support one another, but remain demoralized by the lack of respect, heightened scrutiny, and toxicity directed at them by Sutter leadership. In order to survive at Sutter, Black doctors report that they are advised to keep their head down and remain unseen."