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IOWA CITY - A former acting director of University of Iowa Health Care's Central Sterilizing Services is suing UIHC and the Board of Regents for gender and pay discrimination, asserting she was excluded from meetings and decision making, paid less and fired after reporting concerns about bias and unsafe practices.
When Courtney Mace Davis, now of Winfield, was terminated in April 2019, the UIHC Central Sterilizing Services she previously led was transitioning from the main campus in Iowa City to a new 48,000-square-foot facility on the Oakdale campus in Coralville.
The operation is responsible for cleaning, inspecting, packaging and sterilizing nearly 10 million medical instruments a year.
'Ms. Mace Davis and other women at UIHC faced bias that interfered with their jobs on a vital issue affecting patient safety,” said her attorney, Thomas Newkirk, of Newkirk Zwagerman of Des Moines. 'All of us in Iowa value the University of Iowa Hospital. In research and treatment of complex medical issues it is a shining star. It is her pride as an Iowan that pushes Ms. Mace Davis to shed light on the challenges facing women in medical care from implicit gender bias.”
UIHC declined Friday to comment, citing the pending litigation.
A recent internal audit reported an array of problems with the operation's transition and new site, as reported last month by The Gazette: Robots designed for the facility didn't work; a machine meant to wash instruments can't; high staff turnover and vacancies have slowed productivity; education and training lack; and a consultant hired to plan and help launch the new facility wasn't involved in final implementation.
When presenting the audit to the regents in March, Interim Chief Audit Executive Debra Johnston reported that UIHC was 'dissatisfied with the consultant.”
But in her lawsuit, Mace Davis raised that criticism as an example of what she said is the leadership team's discrimination against women. The suit was filed Thursday in Johnson County District Court after a complaint first was brought before the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.
'In response to the criticism of its practices in a news article in March 2021, defendant placed blame on the same female consultant who was being undermined by (leadership) in 2019,” according to the lawsuit. 'That consultant was not to blame and was, in fact, exceptional at her job.”
In response to the critical audit, UIHC leaders said they're addressing the concerns. And UIHC officials have reported improved patient satisfaction and safety scores.
In suing UIHC and the regents for gender and pay discrimination, and also retaliation for reporting her concerns, Mace Davis is seeking compensation for lost wages, humiliation, anguish and weakened future employment opportunities. But she also wants the court to force UIHC to take steps to prevent discrimination going forward, like imposing training, implementing monitoring and barring disproportionate discipline for women.
Mace Davis joined the operation in May 2014. Reportedly earning 'exceptional” performance reviews four straight years, Mace Davis said in the lawsuit that disparate treatment she experienced worsened in 2018 under a new director. She was excluded from decision making and kept out of meetings, according to the lawsuit.
Before June 2018, Mace Davis said she was told she'd get a bonus for 'sustained exceptional and outstanding performance.” It never came.
'But a man who partnered on this same initiative was awarded a bonus,” she alleged.
In July 2018, Mace Davis received the title of 'acting director” overseeing UIHC ambulatory surgery care central sterilization. Yet 'she had been performing the work for over a year,” according to the lawsuit.
Around that time, Mace Davis noticed UIHC's supply chain director's criticism of a female consultant hired to help with the transition - despite Mace Davis' belief the consultant 'was exceptional at her job and was significantly aiding in the success” of the project.
Other women on Mace Davis' team began logging complaints about male leadership, according to the lawsuit.
One female coordinator said after she discovered 'expired breast sizers were being used on patients” and asked for help, 'no one would respond.” The woman quit 'because she felt patient safety was not a concern at UIHC,” the suit said.
Other female quality coordinators who raised flags about disposable devices being incorrectly reprocessed said the concerns fell on deaf ears. 'This was consistent with the failure to listen, respect, or respond to other females,” the lawsuit asserted.
Mace Davis said she went to human resources in September 2018. The HR director reported receiving similar complaints, the suit said.
But after that meeting, Mace Davis said she felt her work environment changed for the worse. She said she learned a campus official had put the leader she had raised concerns about 'on notice.” At the same time, though, she said that manager got a raise - and was making nearly 20 percent more than he was in March 2018, at a salary of $153,150, according to a UI database.
Although Mace Davis in October 2018 was told she'd get more pay for overseeing the ambulatory surgery center's sterilization services for the last year, plus a bonus, neither came.
And that manager stopped talking to her entirely, according to the lawsuit. Though Mace Davis was serving as an acting director, a supervisor told her the job 'had to be posted.”
In February 2019, UIHC hired a 30-year-old male to fill the role.
As the transition to a new site continued, Mace Davis shared with the consultant concerns about potentially unsafe sterilization practices, 'including dirty instruments, faulty equipment, untrained staff, and 3D printed surgical tools used in patient-to-patient surgeries.”
Just weeks later, after nearly eight years on the job, Mace Davis was fired. She said she was told her termination was due to 'favoritism” after she had recommended removing a disciplinary action from a male worker's personnel file three months earlier.
But Mace Davis - who said she didn't make that decision alone - was not afforded an investigation or any chance to defend herself, according to the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, she said, men accused of favoritism toward vendors - giving jobs to vendors they liked and allowing them to 'unfairly alter the supplier evaluations” - were 'presumed innocent and were certainly not summarily terminated,” her suit said.