An employee’s retaliation claim did not go the way she had hoped.
Dr. Lesley Ann Saketkoo accepted an appointment as an associate professor at Tulane’s School of Medicine in 2014. She worked pursuant to a one-year contract that the employer renewed every year until 2019.
Saketkoo initially worked under Dr. Laurianne Wild, who headed an allergy and immunology section.
In 2017, Saketkoo transferred to a pulmonary section. After she was transferred, Dr. Joseph Lasky became her new supervisor.
Ongoing Mistreatment Alleged
Saketkoo alleged that Lasky mistreated her throughout her entire time at the school. She presented a litany of allegations to support her claim of mistreatment.
In particular, she said he discriminated against her in that he did not support her research.
She alleged that Lasky excluded her from a research opportunity that she brought to him and essentially gave the opportunity to a male physician. She also said he allowed a male physician to move a study forward while preventing her from doing so. She further asserted that Lasky used funding from one of her research grants to support others.
She Alleges Ridiculing
Saketkoo further alleged that Lasky ridiculed her when she made suggestions for clinic changes, asked about her compensation and talked about new topics for research.
According to Saketkoo, Lasky also said other women were “very difficult to work with” and even called them the “enemy.”
She adds that she once found a female physician crying after an interaction with Lasky, and that the female physician told her that Lasky “does this to strong women.”
And There’s More
Saketkoo did not stop there. She said that in September of 2018, Lasky berated her because she did not tell him about an undergraduate class that she was teaching. She said she was intimidated by his behavior.
After that incident, Saketkoo complained about Lasky to other doctors in her section and to Tulane’s Office of Institutional Equity.
In February of 2019, Saketkoo met with the dean of the school, who informed her that her employment contract would not be renewed.
According to the dean, the decision not to renew was motivated by the fact that Saketkoo was not earning enough to pay her salary.
During the same meeting where Saketkoo learned her contract would not be renewed, she “expressly raised concerns” with the dean that Lasky had discriminated against her and against other women on the basis of their gender.
We’ll Look Into It, But …
The dean informed Saketkoo that there would be an investigation.
He also told her that neither her report nor the investigation would change the decision relating to contract nonrenewal.
Tulane began an investigation, and Saketkoo stopped working there in June of 2019.
Saketkoo further alleged that sometime thereafter, the dean told another doctor not to hire Saketkoo for a job with one of its faculty practice partners. But that other doctor said the dean never told him not to hire Saketkoo.
Saketkoo sued Lasky, the dean and others. She alleged violations of Title VII, the Equal Pay Act and corresponding state law. She further alleged unlawful retaliation and hostile work environment. A district court granted summary judgment against her, and she appealed as to her Title VII allegations. She sought to revive her Title VII claims of discrimination, retaliation and hostile work environment.
Appeals Court Affirms
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed.
As to the Title VII claim of discrimination, the appeals court upheld the lower court’s determination that Saketkoo did not identify similarly situated male physicians who were treated more favorably. Saketkoo said male physicians ran deficits just like she did. It is common for physicians to run deficits, the court said, but Saketkoo did so every single year she was at the school.
In addition, the male physicians had different job titles and “presumably different responsibilities,” the court added.
And Further …
Saketkoo’s discrimination claim would not have been able to proceed even if she had cleared that preliminary hurdle, the court said.
That was because she did not rebut the school’s legitimate proffered reason for declining to renew her contract of employment: namely, that she operated at a deficit and “that other physicians operating at deficits added value in ways that she did not.”
Next, the appeals court examined Saketkoo’s claim of retaliation.
Saketkoo’s first allegation of retaliation was based on the school’s decision not to renew her contract of employment, the court noted.
More specifically, Saketkoo alleged that the school declined to renew her contract because she complained about Lasky’s discriminatory behavior.
Timing Doesn’t Fit
The problem with this assertion, the appeals court explained, was that there was nothing to indicate that she reported Lasky’s alleged misbehavior before the school decided not to renew her contract of employment.
Although she raised concerns earlier, she did not specifically allege gender-based discrimination by Lasky until after the school had made its decision regarding her employment.
Saketkoo further alleged retaliation based on the dean’s alleged instruction to another physician not to hire her. But the conversation between the dean and the other physician was too far removed from the nonrenewal meeting to permit a finding that there was a causal link between the two events.
No reasonable jury could conclude that Saketkoo’s protected activity was the “but for” cause of the nonrenewal, the appeals court ruled.
No Retaliation Proven
As a result, the appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision to reject the claims of retaliation.
Lastly, the appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision to reject Saketkoo’s claim of hostile work environment under Title VII.
On that claim, it said the incidents described by Saketkoo were not sufficiently severe or pervasive to show that an illegally hostile work environment existed.
Moreover, Saketkoo did not demonstrate that Lasky’s conduct toward her was based on her gender, the appeals court added. Instead, the record showed that Lasky treated male physicians in a similarly abrasive manner, it said.
The ruling below was affirmed.
Saketkoo v. Administrators of the Tulane Educ. Fund, No. 21-30055, 2022 WL 1183824 (6th Cir. 4/21/22).