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UCLA Escapes $13 Million Gender Discrimination Verdict in Favor of Physician

The California Court of Appeal recently overturned a $13 million jury verdict against the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in a gender discrimination lawsuit brought by a physician faculty member.

The decision in Pinter-Brown v. Regents of the University of California highlights the risks for hospitals, health systems, and medical schools in trying discrimination and retaliation cases to a jury, but provides reassurance that appellate courts will not tolerate a trial court’s improper behavior designed to sway the jurors.   

In this case, UCLA suspended an employed physician’s faculty research privileges and removed her as Director of UCLA’s Lymphoma Program, leading the physician to resign. UCLA claimed it took these actions as a result of the physician’s poor documentation of clinical trials, communication, and management skills. The physician maintained that she was pushed out after years of being harassed, intimidated, and ridiculed by male colleagues. At trial, the physician testified that when she reported the discriminatory behavior, she was called a “diva” and an “angry woman” that “everyone hates,” and told “to suck it up.” The jury found in the physician’s favor and awarded her $13 million in damages, including $10 million based on non-economic factors, such as emotional distress and reputational harm.

On appeal, however, the Court unanimously overturned the jury’s verdict because of the trial judge’s improper remarks, which amounted to “a resolute and stirring call to action which stacked the deck against UCLA.” The judge’s remarks included an opening presentation about Rosa Parks’s fight for desegregated bussing, Susan B. Anthony’s fight for universal suffrage, Fred Korematsu’s fight to end Japanese internment camps, and quotes from a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Court of Appeal concluded that the “court’s errors constituted a miscarriage of justice and created an atmosphere in which UCLA did not receive a fair trial.”

Health care facilities are increasingly facing discrimination and retaliation lawsuits filed by physicians, which – as in this case – can lead to substantial jury awards. Appellate review provides a check on impassioned juries, which can mitigate, although not altogether eradicate, some of these risks.

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