Health

Former Mercy Medical Center director sues over alleged gender discrimination, unequal pay

Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. (The Gazette)
Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. (The Gazette)

An Arizona resident and former Mercy Medical Center employee has sued the hospital and two colleagues, asserting that Mercy did not investigate cases of gender discrimination and harassment and paid her significantly less than a male predecessor.

Jennifer McDowell, 45, who for nearly two years served as Mercy’s director of radiology, alleged in a lawsuit filed Nov. 19 in Linn County District Court that the hospital permitted several male medical officials to “undermine, disrespect and demean” her based on her gender, then fired her in retaliation over her complaints.

Mercy Medical has not yet formally responded to the litigation. In an emailed statement Wednesday, Mercy Medical spokeswoman Karen Vander Sanden said the hospital “firmly (denies) these claims and (believes) they will be found meritless.”

“Mercy has a long history of commitment to providing a respectful, inclusive and equal workplace, including providing fair compensation and benefits regardless of gender,” she wrote.

“Mercy has worked, and will continue to work, in a manner consistent with the highest standards of individual and organizational integrity while meeting all ethical and legal standards.”

Vander Sanden said the Iowa Civil Rights Commission had reviewed the case and administratively closed it without pursuing further action. The commission issued McDowell a “right-to-sue” letter to pursue the case in District Court, per her lawsuit.

The suit on Tuesday was transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa. McDowell seeks an undetermined sum from Mercy Medical, in excess of $75,000, in connection with an alleged violation of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

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Among the issues in the lawsuit, McDowell says when interviewing for her position in October 2016, she reportedly was asked several gender-based questions, including whether she had children and if her husband would move with her if she were offered the job.

McDowell’s attorneys wrote that she learned in May 2018 she was paid less than her male predecessor by approximately $30 per hour, or $62,000 annually, despite being assigned more responsibilities — including overseeing construction of a new facility, coordinating two organizational shifts and managing five departments, compared to her predecessor’s four.

McDowell’s supervisor allegedly told her the disparity was a result of different job titles, despite the same job description, and seniority — explanations the lawsuit alleges are inconsistent with Mercy Medical’s policies and practices.

Mercy Medical placed McDowell on unpaid administrative leave and was fired in August 2018 for conduct she never had been warned about. Details were not included in the lawsuit.

McDowell had not faced any previous disciplinary or performance issues. But an anonymous hotline complaint made against her the previous month prompted Mercy to investigate “with rigor” and ask employees gender-based questions, the lawsuit said.

McDowell’s lawsuit seeks past and future wages and lost benefits, damages for emotional distress, attorney’s fees and equitable relief — including but not limited to court-ordered gender bias training at Mercy Medical.

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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