Courtney Frederick

Yale filed court documents this past Monday in response to charges from a School of Medicine professor who claims that the University violated both federal and state anti-discrimination employment laws.

On Dec. 17, 2015, Rossitza Lazova, an associate professor of dermatology and pathology who has worked at the medical school for 19 years, filed a federal lawsuit against Yale in Connecticut District Court for “retaliatory denial of promotion.” Lazova, who previously lodged a complaint with the state in 2012 claiming that Yale had not promoted her because of her gender, alleged that the University subsequently retaliated against that complaint by denying further applications for promotion. She said the University’s actions came in violation of federal Title VII law and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act, both of which prohibit employers from discriminating based on gender, race or other factors. A motion for extension of time was granted earlier this month, which allowed the University to postpone its answer to the complaint until this Monday. In the newly filed documents, Yale denied that Lazova’s 2012 gender discrimination complaint played any role in its decision not to promote her.

Her case, Lazova argued in the lawsuit, is reflective of a work environment at the medical school that is inhospitable to women. As of September 2014, her claim detailed, the school had 468 full professors, but only 95 were female. Lazova’s claim also cited a report published last July by the Ad Hoc Task Force on Gender Equity at the Yale School of Medicine, which was created in October 2014 to address female faculty members’ concerns about gender inequality. According to Lazova’s claim, the report raised doubts about the medical school’s capacity to promote gender equity and also highlighted concerns about retaliation for expressing one’s true opinions.

“Dr. Lazova’s complaints of sex discrimination made a difference in Yale’s decision not to promote her to the rank of full professor, in violation of Title VII,” Lazova’s complaint reads. “Yale’s conduct in this regard was willful and/or in reckless disregard to Dr. Lazova’s right to equal treatment. As a result of Yale’s conduct, Dr. Lazova has suffered economic harm, emotional harm and reputational harm.”

The lawsuit presents a similar claim for relief under Connecticut law.

According to Lazova’s claim, she approached Dermatology Department Chair Richard Edelson MED ’70 in the summer of 2011 and asked him if she should apply for promotion. Edelson told Lazova that she was “next in line” and advised her to wait until 2012. On Jan. 25, 2012, however, Edelson told Lazova that her male colleague, Associate Professor of Dermatology Richard Antaya, was going to be promoted to full professor. Antaya had fewer credentials and two years less seniority than Lazova, her claim stated. In April 2012, Lazova proceeded to file a gender discrimination complaint against Yale with Connecticut State’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. Her lack of promotion, Lazova claimed, was due to her gender.

Since then, Lazova has applied for promotion every year but has been denied repeatedly. After Lazova asked School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern in January 2015 to task a committee with reviewing her grievances, the review committee found that Lazova’s 2012 CHRO complaint “had further strained the relationship between [Lazova] and the senior faculty in dermatology in the two years preceding the vote of 2014 … [and] created a barrier to fair consideration for promotion.” Following the committee’s report, Lazova sought promotion one more time in September 2015 but was denied again, which led her to file the current federal lawsuit against the University for retaliatory denial of promotion.

Lazova did not return multiple requests for comment.

University Provost Benjamin Polak, Edelson and Lazova’s colleagues in the dermatology department, including Antaya, directed all questions to the Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications. Alpern and University spokesman Tom Conroy declined to comment, as the case involves pending litigation.

Whether or not the School of Medicine promotes a healthy environment for women has been an ongoing conversation for years. The Ad Hoc Task Force’s final report especially highlighted the difficulties for women who aspire to gain senior leadership positions.

“Representation of women among junior faculty has been nearly comparable to men for over a decade, yet women remain underrepresented at higher ranks and in positions of leadership throughout Yale School of Medicine,” the report stated. “In this context, many [medical school] faculty have expressed long-standing concerns over impediments to career advancement of women, [including] a work environment that is perceived as inhospitable to women. Despite several committees and working groups formed over the past two decades to address these concerns, progress toward improving gender equity and the work climate has been slow.”

Lazova is not the first female professor to sue the University for gender discrimination. Former School of Management professor Constance Bagley filed a suit against the University in 2013 claiming that her professorship was not renewed in May 2012 because of age discrimination and gender bias.

“I passionately believe that people should be evaluated based on merit, not on stereotypes and other things that don’t have to do with whether or not they’re effective at doing their job,” Bagley told the News. “People don’t step forward [to make complaints about gender discrimination, sexual misconduct and so on] because they are concerned about retaliation.”

Lazova’s case, Bagley said, is proof that these concerns are legitimate.

Lazova is represented by Nina Pirrotti LAW ’91 of Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald & Pirrotti, P.C. Pirrotti could not be reached for comment Tuesday night. But according to Michelle Gramlich, an attorney at Employees Rights, LLC located in North Haven, it is “routine” to see retaliation following an employee’s charge of discrimination in the workplace. Although Gramlich said she is not familiar with the details of Lazova’s case, she said from her experience working on similar lawsuits, the key is to compare Lazova’s qualifications with those who were promoted. If Lazova can demonstrate that her qualifications exceeded those of the other candidates, she will most likely prevail in court.

“Promotion is very much based on qualification,” Gramlich told the News, adding that it is possible for the medical school’s hiring process to leave room for personal preference and open the door for gender discrimination. “Is Yale following a fair and non-gender-biased promotion process? Are the qualifications of those who are getting promoted valid? Is there a loophole for Yale to allow gender discrimination and preferential treatment to occur? What does a female need to do beyond having the best qualifications to get promoted at Yale? That’s what it comes down to with a gender claim specific to failure to promote.”

Lazova has been an associate professor at the medical school for longer than any other professor in the Department of Dermatology.