Before the world heard about Olympic gymnastics physician Larry Nassar’s abuse of his patients, before Miramax and #MeToo, a culture of sexual harassment and racial discrimination was endemic in the clinical psychology department at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, supported by Allina Health System and St. Mary’s University Minnesota.
That’s the allegation of a 67-page complaint filed against the three institutions by Meagan Abel and Dr. Kimberly Finch for discrimination, harassment and retaliation. Abel is a doctoral student at St. Mary’s University who was enrolled in a practicum at Abbott. Finch is employed by Allina Health System. Allina owns Abbott. Their complaint alleges discrimination by Dr. Jeffrey Gottlieb, a clinical psychologist at Abbott, and subsequent failure to investigate and retaliation by defendants. It was filed on Feb. 27.
“The big picture is that the culture fostered and allowed discrimination and harassment,” said Matthew Pelikan, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “The defendants continually put pressure on the victims rather than investigate.
“It’s a similar pattern to [Nassar] or Miramax. The plaintiffs were left for years feeling no one had their backs. That’s another element of abuse.”
The defendants dispute the plaintiffs’ characterization of the Allina workplace. Attorney Melissa Raphan, who represents Allina and Abbott, released a written statement:
“As one of the largest employers in Minnesota, Allina Health is committed to ensuring an inclusive and respectful professional environment for all individuals. Allina is a responsible employer with a robust reporting process and multiple avenues through which individuals can raise concerns. Allina encourages individuals to raise concerns, and when they are raised, the company conducts a thorough investigation based on the information provided. Appropriate disciplinary actions are taken based on what is found.
“Concerns were first raised about [Gottlieb] in late 2015 and Allina, consistent with its values and commitment to a respectful workplace, immediately looked into the concerns brought to Allina at the time and took prompt action, including removing him from his role [as a supervisor of students] and presenting him with a final written warning. He subsequently resigned from Allina.
“Many of the allegations raised in the lawsuit are new and Allina takes all allegations seriously.”
Abel—‘the graduate student of color’
Abel’s complaint stems from the practicum at Abbott, partially under Gottlieb’s supervision. She began her practicum in September 2015. According to the complaint, she immediately encountered sexualized conversation with Gottlieb and he attempted to control any conversations she and other students had with anybody other than him.
On her first day at the clinic, Gottlieb took students outside and instructed Abel to lie down in the street, ostensibly to measure a parking space. She refused and Gottlieb told her that “obeying” him would be an area for growth. When speaking with other people, he frequently referred to Abel, of Asian-Indian descent, as “the graduate student of color” or “the brown one.” He also refused to provide her with access to the IT chart system, forcing her to ask him for “favors,” the complaint alleges. Gottlieb repeatedly threatened to fire Abel and other students from the practicum, the complaint said.
Gottlieb spent time in individual supervision sessions with Abel and also group sessions that involved role play. He told students to mimic having sex with him in his role as therapist and tell him he was good in bed, the complaint states. At these times he sometimes had a visible erection, the complaint also says. Abel raised these and other concerns but was brushed off by Abbott personnel, her complaint alleges. Abel asked Dr. Michael Schmitz, the clinical director of hospital-based psychology services, for help but was told that she had to be “emotionally tough” and put up with Gottlieb, the complaint continues. She sought some assistance from Finch, whose job was to assist Gottlieb in the clinical psychology training program and supervise interns. Gottlieb was displeased and threatening about her discussions with Schmitz and Finch, the complaint says.
Abel began to believe that Gottlieb would not permit her to complete her practicum unless she had sex with him. Previous students told Abel they were coerced into a sexual relationship with him, the complaint says. In November or December, Finch replaced Gottlieb as Abel’s supervisor.
On Dec. 23, 2015, Gottlieb was ordered not to contact students but allegedly did not comply. The physical set-up at the clinical psychology office at Abbott did not separate Gottlieb from the students. Abel filed a formal complaint with the Board of Psychology in January 2016. This resulted in increased retaliation and more attempts by Allina to contain the situation by thwarting communication, the complaint states. Abel was instructed to “keep everything internal,” according to the complaint. Abel ended her practicum at Abbott about three months early.
Finch – ‘hated’ by colleague
Finch began work at Abbott in the spring of 2015. Both Schmitz and Finch reported to Gottlieb. Abel told Finch about her situation. Finch became concerned about Gottlieb’s actions but found no assistance from Schmitz at Abbott or from Allina management, according to the complaint. She continued to experience hostile and retaliatory behavior from others. The complaint states that one colleague told her that “Everyone knows that Gottlieb gets his jollies with the students. That’s been going on for 20 years. Why do you need to bring it up now?” Schmitz also told Finch that the colleague “hated” her. Finch met with other Allina executives but nothing happened. She filed a formal complaint with the Board of Psychology on Jan. 24, 2016. She resigned from Abbott Northwestern and took a post with Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institution, which is within the Allina Health System.
Finch continued to experience retaliation after she started the second job with Allina. Allina refused to conduct a full investigation or talk to Finch unless Finch forwent her right to counsel, which she did not, the complaint states. Gottlieb resigned on June 17, 2016, but the hostile culture continued. Schmitz left Allina in August 2016.
According to the complaint, Finch lost about $100,000 in compensation as a result of retaliation and her changes of positions.
Abel and Finch filed charges with the Department of Human Rights in May and July 2017, respectively. Allina refused to mediate the matters, the complaint states.
St. Mary’s – ‘fly under the radar’
The complaint further alleges that St. Mary’s University encouraged Abel to work at Abbott with knowledge of Gottlieb’s predilections. In April 2017, Dr. Phyllis Solon of St. Mary’s told Finch that the school coached students to “fly under the radar” to get by with Gottlieb. However, other faculty were hostile to Abel’s concerns and told her to “suck it up,” the complaint states.
However, Solon wrote an email to Abel on Jan. 31, 2018, which is attached to the complaint as Exhibit A. Although she said that she was not denying Abel’s experiences with Gottlieb, she also said that Abel continued to misrepresent the school’s complicity in her practicum with Gottlieb, saying that the school was only aware of “gender-based microaggressions.” She said that she was aware of Gottlieb’s lack of cultural training or competence and that he was a racist, which she said she had told Abel. Solon also told Abel that she should recognize the support she had received from faculty otherwise she would continue to feel alone and unsupported, and risked misrepresenting and insulting the faculty members.
Damages under MHRA
The complaint consists of five counts. It includes employment discrimination under the Minnesota Human Rights Act against Abbott and Allina, education and public accommodation discrimination and negligence against all three defendants, and reprisal against Allina. It seeks compensatory and punitive damages, injunctive relief and attorney’s fees and costs.