Philadelphia FIGHT sued for alleged racial bias

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Dr. Mario Cruz, a local pediatrician of color, has filed suit against Philadelphia FIGHT, alleging racial discrimination, wrongful discharge and retaliation for raising awareness about alleged wrongdoing within the organization.

FIGHT is Philadelphia’s leading healthcare facility for persons living with HIV. It’s headquartered at 1233 Locust Street in the Gayborhood and has many LGBTQ+ clients.

Cruz worked at FIGHT from May 2017 until July 2023, according to court papers.

On July 24, 2023, prior to filing suit against FIGHT, Cruz requested $750,000 to settle the dispute. FIGHT declined to make the payment, but settlement talks continue, according to court records.

On May 15, 2017, Cruz was hired at FIGHT as the medical director of pediatric and adolescent medicine. Cruz’s starting salary was $200,000 and he was given several raises. At the time of his departure, Cruz was earning $250,376.16 annually, according to court records.

Cruz contends he was consistently overlooked for a promotion within FIGHT, specifically for the role of chief medical officer. He contends this exclusion was a direct result of his race and/or color. Furthermore, Cruz contends these actions were in retaliation for his opposition to what he perceived as unlawful race and sex discrimination within FIGHT, according to Cruz’s lawsuit.

In September 2022, after raising concerns about alleged ethical and financial misconduct and operational neglect at FIGHT, Cruz experienced a demotion from the division director of pediatrics and adolescent medicine to medical director of pediatrics, according to the lawsuit.

“This demotion also followed [Cruz’s] complaints about race and sex discrimination; it was retaliatory,” the lawsuit states.

Cruz’s qualifications positioned him as a strong candidate for the chief medical officer position. However, he was neither considered for an interview nor informed of the vacancy. Instead, the position was filled by Dr. Kari Hexem, director of FIGHT’s dental clinic, who was appointed as the new chief clinical officer, a position previously known as chief medical officer, according to Cruz’s lawsuit.

“Dr. Cruz believes that Dr. Hexem is less qualified than himself for this role. The selection process for this significant appointment lacked transparency. Upon information and belief, there were discriminatory practices within [FIGHT’s] hiring and promotion procedures,” Cruz’s lawsuit states.

The lawsuit adds: “These actions by [FIGHT], as alleged by Dr. Cruz, form the basis of his complaint for discrimination, constructive discharge, and retaliation.”

In defense papers, Philadelphia FIGHT asserts that on Feb. 13, 2023, Cruz was offered a promotion to director of clinical applications. Cruz initially accepted the promotion, but eventually rescinded his acceptance. 

FIGHT also asserts that Hexem has longer tenure with the organization and hadn’t complained about management’s decision-making processes nor did she refuse a promotion, according to defense papers.

On March 5, 2023, Cruz informed FIGHT that he was resigning, but that he would not be doing so until July 22, 2023, after obtaining forgiveness of his student loans. FIGHT allowed Dr. Cruz to remain employed until his chosen departure date, according to defense papers.

“Almost immediately after leaving FIGHT, Dr. Cruz began employment as the medical director of pediatrics at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. Dr. Cruz’s LinkedIn profile states that he began employment with Albert Einstein in August 2023,” FIGHT’s defense papers state.

Cruz alleges a variety of damages, including lost wages and benefits; anxiety; loss of reputation; emotional distress; humiliation and inconvenience.

Briana L. Pearson, an attorney for Cruz, expressed optimism regarding the case. 

“Dr. Cruz is a selfless physician who is also a person of color,” Pearson said in an email. “He is keenly aware of what it’s like to be marginalized. He fully believes the population that Philadelphia FIGHT serves should be served by ethical and fair medical providers who do not engage in discrimination or any other  practices that are unethical.”

Pearson added: “I’m optimistic that Philadelphia FIGHT will do the right thing and resolve this matter early on. That said, Dr. Cruz and I will be preparing for a trial — regardless.”

Jonathan P. Rardin, an attorney for FIGHT, had no comment for this story. “It is our position that we do not comment on ongoing litigation,” Rardin said in an email.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. A jury trial has been requested. If a trial is held, it’s expected to last three or four days.

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