Dr. Joy Ekwueme and children (198886)

For the second time in recent years, UCLA is being hit with a discrimination lawsuit by one of its Black doctors.

In 2013, a Black surgeon at UCLA’s medical school received $4.5 million to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit. In the latest suit, a second-year OBGYN resident has claimed that she was harassed and discriminated against while working for the hospital.

Dr. Joy Ekwueme claims that while her performance was comparable to her fellow residents, many of her supervisors treated her as though she was incompetent and denied her learning opportunities. She also claims that she was labeled by her peers as the “Affirmative Action Resident.”

Ekwueme’s complaint against UCLA also claims that her subordinates treated her with disrespect, for example, by questioning her visa status. She grew up in post-apartheid of South Africa, and immigrated to the United States to attend college and later medical school.

According to the complaint, one nurse told a grossly inappropriate joke, using the N-word, in the presence of Ekwueme and her peers, causing Ekwueme great humiliation. The lawsuit claims that nothing was done by UCLA to prevent, stop, or even address actions of discrimination and harassment.

Ekwueme graduated from Texas A&M summa cum laude, the highest possible distinction, and was accepted into the Charles R. Drew/David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, one of the highest ranked and most selective medical schools in the country. Her application for UCLA’s residency program included strong letters of recommendation from leading faculty at UCLA.

Despite Ekwueme’s extraordinary achievements, her abilities were continually doubted by her peers. The situation began early in her residency program. She was pregnant, with her due date close to orientation week, which all doctors must participate in as they are entering their residency program. Orientation week was to take place in June of 2013.

According to the complainant, one of her supervisors said the department does not have a designated maternity leave, and said Ekwueme had to attend the mandatory orientation as scheduled. It was suggested that she undergo early induction of labor before orientation to ensure that she did not miss any work.

Ekwueme had to take that option, and 10 days after giving birth, she made it through orientation while caring for a barely 2-week-old infant. From that point on, she claims that she was mistreated within the program. She successfully completed her first year of residency, in spite of the discrimination and hostile environment to which she was subjected.

Later in her residency, Ekwueme developed a leg condition that temporarily required her to use a wheelchair to avoid walking for long distances, but it did not stop her from working. According to the claim, some nurses and residents would make fun of and laugh at her as she rolled by in her wheelchair. When she parked her wheelchair in designated areas outside patient rooms, she would return to find that her wheelchair had been moved. Her supervisors expressed that they were uncomfortable with her “rolling around in a wheelchair.” After that incident, she was terminated from the residency program.

While medical programs have a history of some form of hazing medical students and young doctors, Brad Mancuso, Ekwueme’s attorney, believes that there is a much larger problem.

“There certainly is somewhat of a culture of hazing within the medical profession, especially for residents going through the program,” Mancuso said. “It’s kind of this, ‘when I was in your shoes I had to work 48-hour straight shifts.’ There’s a lot of that that goes on. But I would say that Ekwueme’s case is beyond just the typical hazing of medical students/medical residents. Her situation is just a blatant mistreatment based on disability, i.e. her pregnancy, which started the whole thing, and then a later leg disability that she developed during her residency program. As well as based on her race. So it goes beyond just classic hazing, said Mancuso.

“Her’s is flat out illegal, harassment and discrimination,” Mancuso said. “I don’t know if that’s universal throughout the medical profession, but it’s very common through the UCLA system, as we have seen it in recent years.”

Mancuso also questions UCLA’s decision to terminate Ekwueme over her disability. He was on a rotation away from UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Hospital, which is on UCLA’s campus. Her away rotation was at Olive View Hospital, which is a county hospital in Sylmar. Ekwueme’s residency program was informed by officals at Olive View Hospital that her disability could not be accommodated at the county hospital, which prompted UCLA to discharge her from the entire program, instead of placing her at another hospital for that rotation.

“Their reasoning was, and it was spelled out in a letter, that because Olive View does not want her back, it is impossible for them to be able to meet her residence training,” Mancuso said. “Which is completely absurd if you think about it. Essentially what UCLA is saying is that Ronald Reagan Hospital, one of the biggest and more comprehensive hospitals in the entire country, told her that they cannot give her the full training that they are required to have because Olive View cannot accommodate her.

“There’s no other place to get that training that she was getting at Olive View?” Mancuso continued. “She could not have been given that training at the entire fancy Ronald Reagan UCLA Hospital? They could not have sent her to another hospital in the city to get that training?”

Mancuso believes that UCLA simply “pointed the finger at Olive View, since Olive View did not want her back, that’s their out. That’s their easy way of dismissing her from the program.”

UCLA’s decision reportedly puts Ekwueme in an extremely difficult position, because according to Mancuso, only about five percent of residents who are terminated from a program can find another program to take them because of the stigma that is placed on them.

“She’ll never be able to complete her dream of becoming an OBGYN,” Mancuso said. “Those positions of being an OBGYN are pretty lucrative jobs. Dr. Ekwueme, was at the very beginning of her career.”