Kaiser Permanente’s med school is facing a discrimination lawsuit from a former employee alleging the healthcare giant fostered a toxic workplace. The school lures the best and brightest Black doctors and scientists with false DEI promises, the law firm representing the plaintiff said in an Aug. 30 statement announcing the suit.
The biologist, who previously worked at the Kaiser Permanente J. Bernard Tyson School of Medicine (KPSOM) as an assistant professor, alleged he was traumatized by pervasive hostility against Black professionals and medical students. Derrick Morton “witnessed and experienced anti-Black animus at KPSOM that was so pervasive and chilling that he and his Black colleagues could not associate with each other or with Black students for fear of being blacklisted,” the statement reads. Along with being “personally downleveled” and experiencing retaliation for his race, Morton claims that, while exploiting his reputation, KPSOM fostered “a workplace culture that disrespects, undermines, disproportionately disciplines and ousts African American faculty on the basis of race.”
A spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente told HR Dive via email that the school was surprised to learn of the lawsuit. “When Dr. Morton provided notice of his resignation after receiving an offer from USC, we offered to put together a retention package for him to stay with us. Dr. Morton chose to accept the position at USC, but to also continue working at the school for an additional four months until the start of his new position.”
As Morton’s claims go to court, this case may serve as a study in implementing diversity, equity and inclusion values at every step of the talent life cycle: from recruiting and onboarding, to retention, exit interviews and succession planning. The lawsuit is another reminder that DEI, which is often considered nebulous or intangible, has concrete roots: policy, data, legal compliance.
Kaiser Permanente’s medical school garnered top spots on U.S. News and World Report’s 2023 Best Medical School Rankings. The organization ranked KPSOM the sixth most diverse medical school in the U.S. and the second most diverse in California, when it comes to its student population. (For context, the Class of 2026 is majority Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx and Pacific Islander.) Marking the diversity ranking, Dr. Mark Schuster, KPSOM’s founding dean and CEO, said in a press release that “promoting inclusiveness and diversity in medical education and the health professions” is one of the school’s core values. “The concepts of equity, inclusion, and diversity inform so much of what we do, and we continue to look for ways to become a more and more inclusive school,” he said.
As is the case with many top institutions these days, KPSOM, which opened in July 2020, has publicly available DEI statements. “Our commitment to inclusiveness helps create both clinical and classroom learning environments that are innovative and intimate, so students and educators are valued and appreciated for the different viewpoints they share each day,” its site reads.
Per Morton’s attorneys, Kaiser Permanente “[abandoned] its stated values of equity and inclusion in medicine and medical education after recruiting Black doctors and academics from across the country to teach at KPSOM on the basis of that stated mission.”
The KPSOM spokesperson told HR Dive that addressing bias, discrimination and systemic racism in medicine — from medical education to the healthcare field itself — is one of the school’s primary objectives. Touching on L&D, they added KPSOM’s curriculum “embraces anti-racism practices,” and that faculty, staff and leadership all receive training on implicit bias, microaggressions and “having challenging conversations,” among other DEI topics.
Morton’s complaint overlaps with a similar lawsuit filed by Aysha Khoury last year. Khoury, represented by the same law firm, alleged race and gender discrimination and harassment at KPSOM. Morton’s witnessed supervisors “ostracize, isolate, and fire Khoury because she is Black,” the attorneys said. The National Labor Relations Board also has filed an unfair labor practice complaint on Khoury’s behalf.
KPSOM denied Khoury’s allegations; the spokesperson told HR Dive the former employee was not placed on leave – as she had alleged – in retaliation for bringing content related to anti-racism to the classroom or because she shared her experiences as a Black woman in medicine.” The school said it submitted evidence to the court “setting forth the school’s position on some elements of the litigation,” which is ongoing.
Ultimately, the KPSOM spokesperson told HR Dive that the school denounces the allegations and characterizations of events in Morton’s complaint and because of the active nature of this legal matter, won’t comment further.
“As an educational institution, we are driven by the belief that one must continually learn, listen, and grow. We have incorporated this into our own development from the time we opened our doors in July 2020 and continue to do so as we grow and remain committed to changing medicine for the better,” the spokesperson concluded.