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Former Head Of Nursing Sues OHSU Over Racial Discrimination, Whistleblowing

The suit says the Doernbecher Children's Hospital hire was fired after calling out unsafe practices, being stereotyped as an "angry Black woman" and told to "straighten her hair."
OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital has a level 1 pediatric trauma center. | OHSU/CHRISTINE TORRES HICKS
September 9, 2020

A former Black employee in charge of nursing staff at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital has filed a lawsuit against Oregon Health & Science University, alleging she was fired because of her race and gender and for calling out unsafe health care practices like the transplant of a wrong body part.

The suit, filed Tuesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court, said that Rhonda Foster was hired as the Interim Chief Nursing Officer for Doernbecher in November 2018 for a three-month stint and encouraged to apply for the position full time. She has a doctorate in education, masters in public health and masters in nursing plus years of experience working as a chief nursing officer supervising hundreds of people and managing multi-million dollar budgets, the suit said.

Soon after she started, Foster learned about a series of safety issues --  the escape of a child from the hospital, a transplant of a left body part on the right-hand side and a patient who was burned by poor care, the suit said. Foster told her supervisor, Mary Beth Martin, how to correct these problems. The suit also said Foster talked to another manager, a white woman, about problems in that person’s unit and that Martin later asked why Foster had made that manager cry.

All that happened in her first week.

In the second, Martin advised Foster to “straighten her hair” when interviewing for the permanent position, the suit said. Martin also questioned Foster when she was home hunting whether Lake Oswego, an affluent white area, was the “right place” for her to live, and accused Foster of making another manager cry while discussing patient safety issues, stereotyping her as an  “angry black woman,”  the suit said.

At the end of November, she was fired after “merely doing her job,” according to the suit which also names Martin and two OHSU recruiters: The First String Healthcare, Inc and AMN Healthcare, Inc.

An OHSU spokeswoman declined to comment on the suit, citing employee confidentiality, but said the company “takes seriously and investigates all allegations of discrimination, harassment and retaliation, in accordance with our policies, procedures and code of conduct.” Her statement added that “OHSU embraces a culture of inclusion and encourages employees, learners, patients and visitors who witness harassment or discrimination at OHSU to report it to Public Safety, Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity or Human Resources.”

The suit, which was first written about by The Oregonian/OregonLive, follows a letter last week to OHSU’s leadership from its Black Employees Resource Group which called the institution “an enabler of racism.”

That email said Black employees don’t trust OHSU’s Human Resources department after “multiple examples” of employees reporting racist incidents “only for HR to gaslight and send employees back to their respective departments with no resolution.”

The letter added: “All of (the Black Employees Resource Group) is of one mind in saying we are tired of being disrespected and being used to push a false narrative of change in order to maintain white supremacy which has permeated within OHSU for decades.”

More blunt, one source told The Lund Report: “They’re using us as blackface so they can do nothing.” 

Only 3% of OHSU’s staff of more than 16,000 -- including President Dr. Danny Jacobs -- is Black, compared with about double that percentage in the Portland area. The employee group is pushing for more Black people in positions of authority. OHSU responded to the letter at length, listing two dozen actions it says it has taken to combat racism.

Jacobs has acknowledged the campus has a problem with racism after repeated noose incidents.

Foster’s lawsuit is the second citing racial discrimination at OHSU in a year and a half. Bob English filed a suit in January 2019, saying he was fired as a janitor after nearly 30 years employment because he is Black. The case settled in November for $25,000, with OHSU admitting no wrongdoing.

Foster’s lawyers -- Quinn E. Kuranz and J. Ashlee Albies -- are seeking nearly $111,000, and the lawsuit says they could ask for more.

The suit, which alleges a breach of contract, said racial discrimination and Foster’s whistleblowing over patient safety were the main reasons she was fired.

OHSU “allowed a climate and culture of race and sex discrimination and harassment to exist in its institution,” the suit said. It added: “Defendants have shown a conscious, reckless and outrageous indifference towards the welfare of employees, especially employees who are reporting or opposing issues concerning patient safety and public health.”

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.