By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law

On August 10, 2023, a female scientist in the anesthesiology department at Duke University’s School of Medicine filed a complaint against the school under Title VII and the Equal Pay Act. She told the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina that Duke paid her less than her male colleagues, increased her hours without increasing her pay, and threatened her with demotions after complaining about it.

According to the complaint (lawsuit), she was the first female principal investigator (PI) to work in Duke’s hyperbaric medicine center. The term “principal investigator,” as used in scientific research, means an individual with a medical degree or Ph.D. appointed directly by third parties (usually the sponsors) to lead and oversee funded scientific research projects on their behalf.

Alleged Hostile Work Environment.

Reportedly, on August 14, 2019, the scientist accepted the position of Assistant Consulting Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at the Duke University School of Medicine. Because she was expecting to undergo several surgeries, she negotiated a part-time role in which she would work ten hours per week at a $30,000 salary, according to the suit. The federal government funded her projects. Duke clarified it paid her $70 an hour. Additionally, the lawsuit alleged that she was promised to receive more money if she exceeded 10 hours per week.

However, the plaintiff said that her supervisor began assigning her to additional work starting in December 2020 and raised her hours to 20 to 40 hours per week without any extra pay. She contacted the human resources department, but the problem went uncorrected, according to court documents.

Additionally, she began talking to her other colleagues, who were male PIs, about their pay rates and learned that they were all making more than her. The suit claimed that one male PI earned $100,000 for the same work she performed while receiving less than half that amount.

Alleged Gender Discrimination.

The scientist alleges that she complained to Duke about gender discrimination in August 2021. She said her supervisor presented her with an ultimatum two weeks later:
She could either be demoted to a staff position or be downgraded to a job assisting a male PI or resign from her current faculty position. She refused all options, the complaint said.

Subsequently, Duke allowed her contract to lapse, leaving her with 20 hours a week and unclear employment rights under the university’s internal policies, the suit said. According to the complaint, this resulted in her making far less than the $70-per-hour pay rate she was not only promised but also that the university was charging the federal government.

Therefore, she claims in the complaint Duke’s refusal to compensate her at the same pay rate as her male counterparts constitutes a violation of the Equal Pay Act.

The University’s Alleged Retaliation.

After she filed her complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Duke allegedly retaliated against her, according to the suit. This occurred when Duke tried to reclassify her to a nonfaculty position and deprive her of human resources (HR) services and grievance rights.

She also claims that the university interfered with her attempts to escape the discriminatory and retaliatory environment of the anesthesiology department. The complaint states that Duke required her to apply only for staff positions and refused to allow her to be hired as faculty by another department. Still, according to the suit, her supervisor “spread malicious and false information about her” and told her she was ineligible for a transfer. And by mid-2022, she said, her supervisor had begun to refuse to speak directly to her altogether.

Her suit seeks back pay, punitive damages, and attorney fees. To read the entire lawsuit (complaint), click here.

To read other legal documents, visit our website’s Articles and Documents section.

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Freedman, Emmy. “Duke Paid Female Scientist Less Than Male Peers, Suit Says.” Law360. (August 10, 2023).

Dalesio, Emery. “Duke University to Pay $54M to Settle Suit Over Hiring Agreement with UNC.” Insurance Journal. (June 7, 2019).

About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law. He is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida, area. The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Avenue, Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 or Toll-Free: (888) 331-6620.

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