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Medical Center professor files ethnic, gender discrimination lawsuit against Duke

A Duke professor of medicine is suing the University for gender and racial discrimination.

The plaintiff, Manal Abdelmalek, a tenured professor of medicine and physician at Duke Medical Center in the gastroenterology division, filed the suit against Duke July 3. Abdemalek, who is Egyptian and immigrated to the United States as a child, had been "subjected to discrimination on the basis of her gender and her race/national origin," according to her complaint.

Duke filed a defense in the case Sept. 13. Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email that as a matter of policy, the University does not comment on active litigation or personnel matters. He added that "as an employer, Duke is deeply committed to equity and inclusion for all faculty and staff." 

Stewart Fisher—Abdemalek’s attorney from the Glenn, Mills, Fisher and Mahoney law firm in Durham—told The Chronicle that it will be "a long time" before the court decides the outcome of this case, as the lawsuit is still in its beginning stages. 

"I really admire Dr. Abdemalek and I think she's been treated wrongfully, so I look forward to moving forward with her case,” Fisher said.

Lawyers from Ogletree Deakins, the firm representing Duke, did not respond to a request for comment.

The complaint claimed Duke Medical Center has a “history of favoring men over women [for] promotion and compensation” and a “pattern and practice” of paying male employees and white employees more than female employees and non-white employees who have “equal or better training, experience and performance.”

Abdelmalek’s complaint also accused Duke Medical Center of “more readily promoting men over women,” and of denying leadership position opportunities to ethnic minority women with equal or more experience than others.

Duke denied these allegations in its answer to the complaint.

Andrew Muir, professor of medicine and GI division chair, presented salary equity data for the division Nov. 28, 2017, according to the complaint. The presentation demonstrated that women were being paid at least 10% less than men working in the same jobs.

Duke’s answer stated that Muir examined salary equity data and presented his findings but denies that the presentation showed that women are paid less than men.

Although the salary data wasn't sorted by ethnicity, the complaint stated, “on information and belief, non-white doctors in the GI Division are paid less than comparable white doctors” and “non-US origin doctors in the GI Division are paid less than comparable US origin doctors."

The complaint also noted that Muir developed a bias against her that was consistent with “historical norms and culture of the Duke University and its leadership.”

Duke’s response denied the two allegations. Muir declined to comment to The Chronicle.

In 2016, Abdelmalek complained to Muir about her treatment by the leadership at Duke.

“Dr. Muir responded by telling Plaintiff that Duke is a Southern sexist institution and that she simply needed to do her best to get along and learn ‘soft skills,’” the complaint stated. “Dr. Muir told her that if she could not conform to these cultural norms at Duke, then she should just leave the University.”

Duke’s answer admitted that Muir and Abdelmalek met in 2016, but it denied that Abdelmalek complained about her treatment and that Muir responded in the way described by the complaint.

As a result of her filed charges, assertiveness and resistance against the institution's norms, the complaint states that Abdemalek suffered “retaliation” from Duke, which has attempted to "'justify' adverse employment actions against her."

For example, the complaint stated that in 2015, Muir delayed Abdelmalek’s promotion to the rank of full professor for two years by advancing his own dossier and that of another male candidate. As a result of her delayed promotion, the complaint noted that she lost additional salary and benefits that would have accompanied her promotion to the rank of full professor with tenure.

Additionally, Abdelmalek complained that Muir denied her a proper salary. In 2016, she requested a salary increase that corresponded to “the amount of money that she was bringing into the University and what she understood her white male counterparts were being paid.” However, Muir blocked her request, according to the complaint.

Muir denied Abdelmalek her earned financial incentives for clinical work and research for meeting certain benchmark measures, along with cutting her ability to do the work that would earn her more such payments, the complaint stated. As a result, she lost approximately $43,293 in payments over the next three academic years.

Duke’s answer denied that the University has attempted to justify such actions and that gender and ethnic discrimination were motivating factors. 

The complaint alleged that Abdelmalek was subjected to threats of dismissal and “unjustified disciplinary measures” based on “hearsay and anonymous complaints.”

Muir and Mary Klotman, dean of the School of Medicine, put Abdelmalek on a performance improvement plan (PIP) in September 2017, which was renewed in 2018. She remained on the PIP as of the complaint’s date. The complaint argued that "there was no substantial justification for placing Plaintiff on either PIP."

Duke’s answer acknowledged that Abdelmalek was on a PIP but denied the rest of the allegation. Klotman declined to comment to The Chronicle.

Within the last year and a half, Abdelmalek was also allegedly subject to repeated, unwarranted audits, investigations and heightened scrutiny on the basis of "anonymous allegations." However, Duke’s answer denied the allegation.

The complaint cited tension between her and Muir dating back to 2006—when she began working for Duke—including Muir attempting to serve as her mentor and reporting manager despite being of a lower rank.

It mentioned that in 2008, Muir allegedly accused Abdelmalek of “unprofessional” conduct after she spoke in her native language to a patient’s mother who did not understand English. The complaint also alleged that, in 2010, after overspending his research budget, he attempted to take money from her research account to transfer to his own.

Duke denied those allegations. It stated that the University “lacks sufficient knowledge or information to form a belief about the truth or falsity” of the complaint’s description of Abdelmalek’s interaction with the patient’s mother.

A world-leading researcher of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, Abdelmalek has published more than 100 papers about the disease in medical journals, the complaint stated.

Prior to filing this lawsuit, Abdelmalek had filed three separate, timely charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission beginning November 2017, according to the complaint. The EEOC issued a notice of right to sue in April 2019.

The complaint stated that Abdelmalek "seeks injunctive relief, monetary relief, compensatory damages, liquidated damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees” under federal law. 

Matthew Griffin contributed reporting.

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