‘A Black Doctor Like Me Was Expendable': Lawsuit Alleges Racism ‘Permeates' Sutter Health

Several Black doctors were labeled as “aggressive” or “intimidating” when raising concerns about racial discrimination or patient care, according to the lawsuit. 

NBC Universal, Inc.

A long-time Black physician within Sutter Health says racism in the workplace made him the target of derogatory remarks, demotions and salary cuts, according to a lawsuit filed against the large California hospital system.

Dr. Omondi Nyong’o is an internationally recognized pediatric ophthalmologist who rose to become the first and only Black physician to chair a department within the Palo Alto Medical Foundation region of Sutter Health, according to the lawsuit. But he says a racist environment that permeates Sutter sabotaged his career and inflicted shame and embarrassment. 

“I was subject to the type of racism that hits you in the back of the head when you don’t see it coming,” Nyong’o said. “I was blindsided by leaders who suddenly and harshly demoted me from my leadership positions, even though I was excelling at them, in order to shield themselves from accountability for their own shortcomings.”

The lawsuit alleges Sutter’s workplace culture “disrespects, undermines, and disciplines African American staff and doctors” such as Dr. Nyong’o due to racial bias.

“Many of us have either experienced the things that I have while at Sutter or have been chased away over the years,” Nyong’o said, echoing allegations made in the lawsuit.

Dr. Omondi Nyong'o is the plaintiff in a lawsuit against Sutter Health, Palo Alto Medical Foundation, and Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group

Nyong’o rose to ranks rarely awarded to Black physicians within Sutter's network, according to the lawsuit, but his upward trajectory was abruptly halted “due to racial discomfort” from predominantly white leadership within the medical system.

In 2015, according to the lawsuit, Nyong’o was awarded the position of ophthalmology and optometry department chair, the first ever Black physician to achieve that leadership level within Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group. Two years later, Nyong’o says he was promoted again, taking over as medical director of surgical specialties for the Palo Alto Foundation Medical Group. 

But the promotion was short-lived. 

According to the lawsuit, Nyong’o was ordered to carry out a hospital restructuring plan that was conceived of by two of his bosses, which would have transferred certain doctors to different locations. But when those physicians voiced opposition, the plan was scrapped, and Nyong’o says he was forced to take the fall. He was stripped of his medical director title, according to the suit, and his pay cut by about 40%

“A Black doctor like me was expendable,” Nyong’o said. “You know, we were used as tokens.”

In a statement, a Sutter Health spokesperson told NBC Bay Area: “We are committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce, as well as a healthcare environment where all are treated equitably, with dignity and respect, and provided the opportunity to reach their full potential. As a healthcare system serving diverse people and communities, we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind."

In court filings responding to Nyong’o’s lawsuit, Sutter attorneys denied any wrongdoing and asserted that any negative employment actions taken against the doctor were for “legitimate non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory business reasons.”

Nyong’o stayed at Sutter, where he continues to work, but says his mistreatment carried on.

“When I asked these leaders to please stop this pattern of racial scapegoating, instead of protecting me, they doubled down and labeled me an angry Black doctor,” Nyong’o said.

“Sutter readily agrees that I excel with patient care and that I’m a top performing doctor and clinician. They have depended upon the disguise or the pretext of really disgusting racially coded epithets in order to justify retaliating against me for complaining about poor treatment.”

In one instance described in the lawsuit, Nyong’o says his supervisor asked him not to use the elevators at his clinic because white doctors would be “uncomfortable” seeing him there, leaving him only with the back stairs to access the facility. Nyong’o says he rejected the request.

In 2020, according to the lawsuit, Sutter placed Nyong’o on a performance improvement plan, not because of patient care issues, but because of his perceived attitude.

“If it could happen to Dr. Nyong’o, it really could happen to any doctor, any Black doctor [at Sutter],” said Kelly Dermody, Nyong’o’s attorney. 

Nyong’o’s lawsuit also includes accounts from seven other anonymous Black doctors at Sutter. 

“We wanted to provide that fuller picture, so that Dr. Nyong’o’s story could be understood as not just one person complaining,” Dermody said. “But really kind of a constellation of problems happening in an ecosystem that really devalues Black doctors and Black leadership.”

Kelly Dermody, an attorney with Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, represents Dr. Nyong'o in his lawsuit against Sutter Health

Several of those other Black doctors were labeled as “aggressive” or “intimidating” when raising concerns about racial discrimination or patient care, according to the lawsuit. 

One Black surgeon described being followed to their office by a white coworker who questioned whether they actually worked there, according to the lawsuit. Another Black doctor said they received similar treatment when a white coworker attempted to stop them from parking in a space reserved for physicians. 

Sutter Health is one of California’s largest medical systems, with more than 20 hospitals, 53,000 employees, and three million patients. But according to the lawsuit, there are no black leaders within Sutter’s senior ranks. Of 354 physicians holding any leadership positions within Sutter, only three are Black. A Sutter Health spokesperson would neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of those figures.

NBC Bay Area requested similar racial demographics from other large health systems such as Kaiser, Stanford, and UCSF, but none would provide us with their data.

“I personally can’t see problems of this magnitude and do nothing about it,” said Dr. Vanessa Grubbs, an Oakland-based nephrologist who recently founded the non-profit Black Doc Village

The fledgling organization aims to study racism in the medical field and help Black doctors and med students overcome discrimination in the workplace.

“There is just so much that we are losing because we are systematically undervaluing an entire group of people based upon these delusions that somehow Black people are less than,” Grubbs said.

Grubbs, who’s been practicing medicine for more than 20 years, says discrimination can impact Black doctors early, sometimes during their required residency training. She says it has the potential to derail careers.

“Black people in this country are dying disproportionately across all outcomes,” Grubbs said. “And we know that Black people get better health outcomes when they have Black doctors. We know that they prefer Black doctors."

 A 2023 study published in JAMA surgery found that Black surgical residents faced disproportionate risks of attrition compared to their colleagues of other races, meaning they were more likely to leave or be kicked out of those programs. 

“To make true change in something we have to understand and define the issue,” said Dr. Lee Haruno, Chief Resident in Orthopedic Surgery at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and one of the study's authors.

Haruno said the medical field should focus on improving recruitment, retention and promotion of women and underrepresented minorities.

“We will be unable to meet the holistic needs of our patients if we fail to address a lot of the needs with representation and diversity,” Haruno said.

According to a 2022 report from the Association of Medical Colleges, just 6% of physicians are Black, yet the latest U.S. Census Bureau data shows Black people make up 14% of the population. 

Unless both sides come to a settlement in Nyong’o’s lawsuit, the case is expected to go to trial this summer. 

“You can never really have despair unless you’ve had hope to begin with,” Nyong’o said. “And this journey of mine has been one of ultimate hope, even through the despair.”

Watch our entire investigative series

Contact The Investigative Unit

submit tips | 1-888-996-TIPS | e-mail Bigad

Contact Us