In two federal lawsuits, seven individuals have leveled new charges of sexual misconduct against a Yale doctor and the university that, until last year, employed him.
On Feb. 12, five women and one man filed a 103-page complaint in U.S. District Court in New Haven. It outlines 41 allegations of misconduct against three entities: Yale University, DVA Renal Healthcare, Inc. and Rex Leroy Mahnensmith MED ’77, the now-retired medical director of the DaVita New Haven Dialysis Clinic (NHDC) and the Acute Hemodialysis Clinic in New Haven, the latter located on the eighth floor of Yale New-Haven Hospital. The suit accuses Mahnensmith of sexual harassment, violation of medical bylaws and perpetuation of a hostile work environment.
The complaints lodged against the University and the dialysis clinics Mahnensmith directed include sexual discrimination, violation of Title VII and Title IX legislation and maintenance of a “culture of tolerance” of inappropriate behavior. A 54-page suit lodging similar complaints was filed by an additional female plaintiff in Hartford on the same day.
Though the plaintiffs have filed against the University, they are not Yale employees, University spokesman Tom Conroy said in an email. Instead, they are current and former employees of the company, DaVita, which operates the two clinics where Mahnensmith worked.
According to Arthur C. Laske III, the attorney of the plaintiff filing in Hartford, DaVita has a contract with the Yale School of Medicine, which provides physicians from the nephrology department to the clinic. In exchange for staff, DaVita pays Yale and the medical director — formerly Mahnensmith — a “significant amount of money.”
Mahnensmith retired from his position in April 2014 and is no longer part of the faculty, Conroy said.
In response to the allegations, the University has said it actively addresses all concerns and complaints of sexual misconduct across all departments, defending further accusations that the complaints against Mahnensmith were overlooked for financial gain. Conroy said in an email that “all complaints of sexual misconduct are investigated and addressed when they are reported to the University in accordance with our practices and procedures and our commitment to provide a safe and respectful environment for all.”
Mahnensmith and his attorney, Elizabeth Acee, did not respond to requests for comment.
The lawsuit accuses Mahnensmith of repeated unwanted sexual advances and comments toward employees and patients, retaliation when confronted with complaints and unprofessional behavior toward patients that contravened Yale’s bylaws and DaVita’s policies.
One specific claim filed against Mahnensmith under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act — which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin — accuses the doctor of touching the shoulders and upper chests of staff members, and the mid-thighs of female patients “for no clinical purpose.” Further accusations claim that Mahnensmith frequently made inappropriate sexual comments and sexual advances while interacting with patients and colleagues. The plaintiffs claim his behavior created a hostile work environment for women at the dialysis treatment center.
In addition to accusations of sexual misconduct, Mahnensmith was also accused of violating Yale and DaVita’s medical policies regarding infection control, hours of operation, prescription drugs and acceptable patient behavior. The suit claims that these violations were “flagrant,” “extreme and outrageous.”
Dean of the Yale School of Medicine Robert Alpern, who also specializes in nephrology, was criticized in the lawsuit for a failure to supervise Mahnensmith, despite allegedly being aware of the director’s treatment of women and unprofessionalism in the workplace. The suit further alleges that Alpern’s unresponsiveness fits a broader pattern of the dean failing to supervise faculty members, after reports of misconduct, if they are adept at securing funding either for grant money or, as in Mahnensmith’s case, corporate funding.
In a Saturday night email to the News, Alpern declined to comment on ongoing litigation and said he does not “comment on personnel matters.” However, he said that Yale encourages reporting of misbehaviors by faculty, staff and students, and added that “it is critical” that all affiliated parties understand “Yale’s desire to be informed immediately” about such misbehavior.
Yet, the plaintiffs claim that the University had been “aware of [Mahnensmith’s] sexual harassment and misconduct towards women” long before the most recent lawsuit was filed in February. At least one formal and other informal sexual harassment complaints had previously been filed, including repeated complaints made by two other staff members in 2013, the complaint states. The suit claims that the School of Medicine neglected to respond to complaints due to Mahnensmith’s ability to bring in corporate funding, and that DaVita neglected claims in order to protect its contract with Yale. According to the lawsuit, DaVita made known to the plaintiffs that its primary concern was “to keep Dr. Mahnensmith happy” for this reason.
“DaVita gets to charge the clients, and in return Yale and the medical director get paid,” Laske, the attorney for one of the plaintiff’s, added. “DaVita tolerated Mahnensmith because he was put there by Yale, and they needed to maintain the contract with Yale.”
A similar claim, that officials in the medical school declined to punish harassment in the interest of financial gain, was made earlier this academic year when former chief of cardiology Michael Simons MED ’84 was given a lighter penalty than the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct recommended after allegations of sexual misconduct. Simons had brought the medical school close to $5 million in research grants every year for the past three fiscal years. He elected not to return to his position as chief of cardiology at the School of Medicine and was subsequently dismissed from the directorship of the Yale Cardiovascular Research Center amid accusations of sexual harassment.
Alpern called the claims that reporting misbehaviors would affect a contract “misplaced and quite concerning.” He added that it is Yale’s policy to firmly and efficiently address incidents of misbehavior.
In addition to accusing Yale of letting finances and prestige determine handling of complaints, the lawsuit accuses DaVita’s Northeast Division Vice President Elise Duke — who is responsible for the management of the New Haven clinic — of neglecting to act on complaints because she was worried about the “impact of the accusations on DaVita’s relationship with Yale.”
On behalf of Duke, DaVita’s Director of Communications Vince Hancock declined to comment on the pending litigation.
As a result of Mahnensmith’s alleged behavior and the hostile working environment they said they experienced, three of the seven plaintiffs said they felt compelled to leave their jobs at the DaVita center in 2014. Two left the company — which has over 2,000 centers across the country — altogether.
When the Simons case surfaced in November, in the form of a front-page story in The New York Times, Alpern sent a faculty-wide email telling his staff that he was “entirely committed” to addressing complaints, and said the school did not countenance behavior marked as harmful, harassing or demeaning.
He reaffirmed this statement in a Saturday email to the News, where he said a major focus of his recent work at the medical school has been to share with the community his commitment and the commitment of senior leadership to address issues of misconduct. He said it is, and will remain, a high priority for both him and the school.
But according to Laske, Yale has shown a “lack of responsiveness” to both formal and informal complaints,leading DaVita employees to deal with Mahnensmith’s behavior “beyond a point that they should have.”
“The real issue for us is whether Yale is going to be accountable and accept its responsibilities and if DaVita is going to do the same,” Laske said. “They were both working in concert to preserve a very bad person.”
Mahnensmith completed his residency in internal medicine at Yale New-Haven Hospital, and completed a three-year fellowship in internal medicine and nephrology at the School of Medicine.