5 min read

Discrimination Themes from the Docket of Dr. Velazquez vs. UMiami

Discrimination Themes from the Docket of Dr. Velazquez vs. UMiami

Today is your last day. However, before the day is over, security personnel approach. They ask you to vacate your office and ensure you've left the premises. Shortly after, your employer sends out an institution-wide email stating that "effective today," you have been demoted.

That didn't happen to you unless you happen to be Dr. Omaida Velazquez, the former Surgeon-in-Chief and Department of Surgery Chair at the University of Miami (UM). Dr. Velazquez believes her removal from UM was a culmination of discrimination and retaliation towards her. On February 8, 2023, Dr. Velazquez filed suit against UM, UM's Medical School, and UM's health system.

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On February 8, 2023, Dr. Velazquez filed suit against UM, UM's Medical School, and UM's health system.

β€ŒThe docket is 51 pages and details accounts of discrimination and retaliation. It's quite a shocking twist given Dr. Velazquez's illustrious career: being first female vascular surgeon at UPenn, propelling UM's surgery program sixteen ranks to #11, and bringing in millions of dollars of funding.β€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œ Let's take a look.

Theme 1: Undercompensated

β€ŒWhen compared to the 2021 AAMC salary report, Dr. Velazquez was "well below the 50th percentile for her title nationwide." The low salary did not seem to apply to her peers in equal or lesser roles.

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"... UM has paid Dr. Velazquez a discriminatory wage throughout her entire time as Chair and Surgeon-in-Chief."

The docket outlines multiple comparisons.

Direct

First up is Dr. Livingstone, UM's Chair of Surgery that stepped down in 2015. Dr. Velazquez assumed his role in addition to being Surgeon-in-Chief. Same role, same pay, right? Well, that's hopeful thinking.

The docket mentioned Dr. Livingstone had a higher compensation package as UM's Chair of Surgery. Curious how much he made?

Verse Peers

Okay, so she was paid less than someone who held the same title a year before. How did she compare to her peers?

Turns out Dr. Velazquez was paid less than:

  1. male chairs of smaller surgical departments. Mentioned are Dr. Parekh in Urology and Dr. Fred Telischi in Otolaryngology.
  2. her own subordinates. Examples include Dr. Nestor De La Cruz (in 2017), Dr. Lee Kaplan (in 2014 and 2018), and Dr. Joseph Lamelas (in 2019).

Systemically

Why was Dr. Velazquez paid less than her peers? The docket points out multiple systemic reasons.

  1. She was subject to different bonus calculations. Dr. Velazquez's bonus was calculated on a fraction of her salary (i.e. not including her stipend) while her peers' bonuses were calculated on their full compensation.
  2. She was excluded from certain incentive programs. One example is UM's "...special Y-component incentive system, which rewards high clinical volumes for clinical care providers. Leadership has systematically misinformed and misled Dr. Velazquez ... that department chairs cannot qualify."
  3. Her full bonus was withheld. "...[F]or six out of her seven years as Chair and Surgeon-in-Chief, UM has held back either a portion or all of Dr. Velazquez’s bonuses for arbitrary reasons."
  4. She was excluded from department chair merit pool increase. "... UM withheld Dr. Velazquez’s entire merit pool increase while approving it for all other departmental surgical chairsβ€”all men..."

Theme 2: Retaliation Against Protected Activities

Dr. Velazquez has a responsibility to report incidents to ensure that UM's Surgery department is running to high standards. She escalated many incidents and received various types of interesting feedback.

  1. Dr. Velazquez reported eight Code 15 events (major serious adverse events) regarding Dr. Merchant, Surgical Oncologist, between 2018-2022, to senior leadership--Steve Stark (head of risk management), Dean Ford, UM health system's CEO--out of concern for patient safety. She was told these incidents were "minor" and Dr. Merchant was medically re-credentialed without issue.β€Œβ€Œ Following this, certain safety and medical reports were withheld from Dr. Velazquez.
  2. Dr. Velazquez reported COO, Dr. Parekh, for mistreatment after one of her division chiefs (Dr. Peleg) declined to open an unstaffed clinic on a Sunday to treat an abscessed tooth of Dr. Parekh's wife. The CEO replied the following day that he "... would have no direct role in this matter." The Dean replied by advising Dr. Velazquez that Dr. Parekh was irate, and that Dr. Parekh intended to have his wife file a letter of complaint against Dr. Peleg. β€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€ŒDr. Velazquez found out later that Dr. Parekh was not being investigated, but rather she was being investigated for violating the rules.β€Œβ€Œ
  3. UM changed its quadrennial chair review to target Dr. Velazquez. They moved her review a year earlier than scheduled, while also removing standard involvement from UM Faculty Senate and regular surveys. A lack of this third party input placed COO Dr. Parekh and HR Chief Ms. Mincey in control of Dr. Velazquez's future.β€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œ Dr. Velazquez was recommended for a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) at her review.

Theme 3: Authority Undermined

A prominent form of retaliation Dr. Velazquez believes UM launched against her was an effort to replace her as Surgeon-in-Chief. The docket provides occurrences where Dr. Velazquez's role as Chair and Surgeon-in-Chief were undermined, replaced, and extinguished.

  1. Additional layers of management were created by promoting Dr. Parekh to COO.β€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œ This "created delays and potential safety concerns" and directly refuted her offer letter that "she would report to the Dean and CEO." Adding complexity slowed down communication, making it more difficult for Dr. Velazquez to achieve key metrics and execute as Surgeon-in-Chief.β€Œβ€Œ
  2. A new Chief Surgical Officer role was created without seeking Dr. Velazquez's advice.β€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œ β€Œβ€ŒThis new role is the equivalent of a Co Surgeon-in-Chief, which is unheard of at other leading institutions. It caused confusion amongst Dr. Velazquez's colleagues and "overtly excluded [her] from matters integral to the surgical care lines".β€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œ Dr. Merchant was promoted to this role, and was subsequently paid more. The new role took away Dr. Velazquez's key responsibilities and duties.β€Œβ€Œ
  3. UM objected to Dr. Velazquez's communication with staff during FMLA leaveβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œ. "[T]he only purpose of her communication was to ensure that the department continued to function smoothly in her absence. In reality, UM was not trying to protect the integrity of her leave but to freeze her out of leadership, undermine her authority, and ultimately remove her as Department Chair and Surgeon-in-Chief."

Tip of the Iceberg

The docket is a great read. Study it to learn more about Dr. Velazquez's superstar career, juicy storylines, and evidence of her positive feedback at UM before events took a turn.β€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œ Unfortunately, we believe many of the obstacles Dr. Velazquez faced are not isolated events. Removal of promotion-worthy responsibility, different calculations in pay, and blatant discrimination exist in many companies. The issues could be small, or they could be worthy of a lawsuit of nine counts.

Discrimination is everywhere and occurs in all shapes and sizes. Keep an eye open, document everything, and be proactive in putting yourself in the best position possible. This docket might just be the tip of the iceberg.

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