Renowned Surgeon and First Latina/Hispanic, Female Chair of Surgery and Surgeon-In-Chief in the United States, Dr. Omaida Caridad Velazquez, Files Suit Against University of Miami; Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine; and the University of Miami Health System, UHealth for Discrimination and Retaliation

Dr. Omaida C. Velazquez, University of Miami’s Medical School’s Former Department of Surgery Chair and Surgeon-in-Chief and renowned surgeon-scientist, Details Discrimination Based on Race, Gender, and National Origin and Retaliation for Complaining About the Discrimination and Raising Concerns of Health and Safety Violations

MIAMI, Feb. 08, 2023 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Dr. Omaida C. Velazquez, a leading academic surgeon, filed suit today in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida against her employer, the University of Miami (“UM” ), its medical school, the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, and its health system, UHealth.

Dr. Velazquez, the Health System’s Department of Surgery Chair and Surgeon-in-Chief since 2015, alleges that UM discriminated against her as a Latina/Hispanic on the basis of her race, female gender, and national origin, and retaliated against her after she complained about gender discrimination and reported repeated health and safety violations at UM and UHealth hospitals. In retaliation for her complaints, Defendants reduced her compensation, threatened to restrict and even withhold her medical credentials, and ultimately removed her as Department Chair and Surgeon-in-Chief—among other illegal retaliatory actions.

Dr. Velazquez is represented in the lawsuit by national civil rights firm Sanford Heisler Sharp—including its Chair, David Sanford; Firm Co-Chairs Jeremy Heisler and Kevin Sharp; Co-Chair of the Wage & Hour Practice, Andrew Melzer; and Litigation Fellows Ari B. Rubin and Surabhi Dhar; along with local counsel Angeli Murthy of Morgan & Morgan.

Dr. Velazquez is a classic example of the American dream. Dr. Velazquez was born in Cuba and came to the United States on the Mariel boatlift in 1980 when she was 13 years old. Even though she spoke no English when she arrived in the U.S., Dr. Velazquez graduated in the top 10 in her high school class and excelled in college, graduating in the top tier of her class. She then graduated as Valedictorian at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, with multiple awards and the highest attainable grade point average. She then earned a surgery residency at the University of Pennsylvania, became University of Pennsylvania’s first female vascular surgeon, became its first female recipient of the Distinguished Graduate Award in the Department of Surgery, and received the rare honor of early tenure.

In 2007, the University of Miami recruited Dr. Velazquez as Chief of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery. Dr. Velazquez became the David Kimmelman Endowed Chair in Vascular and Endovascular Surgery. Throughout her illustrious career, Dr. Velazquez earned new patents in her field of regenerative, limb-saving vascular medicine and is currently developing a limb-and-life saving licensed orphan drug candidate for vascular regeneration. Since 2007, UM has touted Dr. Velazquez’s many achievements and contributions to the institution. In 2009, the University of Miami was proud to announce that Dr. Velazquez was elected to the American Society of Clinical Investigation, an honor rarely bestowed on a surgeon. From 2012 to 2015, she also served as Executive Dean for Research, Education, and Innovative Medicine. In 2015 she was appointed Department Chair and Surgeon-in-Chief. Dr. Velazquez has written or co-authored more than 150 journal articles, served on editorial boards of three academic journals, and has served on multiple U.S. National Institutes of Health (“NIH”) study sections and panels, as well as on the review board of American Heart Association and the Howard Hughes Research Institute. The University of Miami’s own website recently announced that Dr. Velazquez was elected in 2022 to the National Academy of Medicine, a recognition that is, according to UM, “one of the highest in the medical field.”

“Dr. Velazquez is a world-renowned vascular surgeon with a stellar professional and academic reputation,” said her attorney, David Sanford of Sanford Heisler Sharp. “She excels in the practice of vascular medicine and medical vascular research and has provided outstanding leadership to UM’s Miller School of Medicine as chair of the Surgery Department and Surgeon-in-Chief for seven years. She is widely recognized as a pioneer leader and role model. Instead of recognizing her countless contributions to the University and the community at large, we allege that UM has subjected her to egregious discrimination and soul-crushing retaliation.”

Dr. Velazquez states, “I am so appreciative of the faith, trust and overwhelming support that I have received from so many, including in the Miami and UM community.  I believe this lawsuit not only protects my rights, but will serve as an example for others at UM and in the Miami community who may be facing the same or similar issues and shine a light on what has been taking place at UM and what clearly needs to change for the better.  I look forward to the opportunity to discuss in more detail what has happened to me, and I look forward to serving the Miami and South Florida community for years to come.”

When she came to UM, Dr. Velazquez became the first woman to lead a major surgical division at the Miller School of Medicine. After eight years of impeccable results as the Vascular and Endovascular Surgery Division Chief, she was chosen in 2015 as Chair of the Department of Surgery and Surgeon-in-Chief after a highly competitive process. That position gave her the historical recognition of being the first Latina/Hispanic to serve as head of a major academic surgery department in the United States.

Under Dr. Velazquez’s leadership, UM’s Department of Surgery rapidly rose from 27th to 11th in the national rankings for NIH funding. She successfully brought millions of dollars in philanthropic gifts from her grateful patients and their families to sustain and grow the department. In addition, she secured federal funding from NIH every year since arriving at UM.

UM has cut Dr. Velazquez’s American dream short, as she reached the pinnacle of her medical career. Despite her remarkable leadership, numerous accomplishments and sacrifices, the University’s own records show that UM consistently underpaid her in comparison to similarly situated and even less-qualified men (some with fewer responsibilities) of different races and nationalities (some of whom reported to Dr. Velazquez).

In addition, Dr. Velazquez understood that certain high-ranking individuals at UM were ignoring safety regulations and other corporate compliance rules in violation of the institution’s medical codes, a Corporate Integrity Agreement UM entered into with the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in settling a False Claims Act claim in 2021, and the University’s bylaws.

When she reported these violations and her concerns that she was being paid unfairly and suffering other discriminatory treatment, UM responded by creating a plan to force her out of her leadership position and to undermine her professional reputation and standing.

According to the complaint, when Dr. Velazquez engaged in the protected activity of objecting to UM’s unlawful behavior, she faced escalating discrimination and retaliation—including threats to terminate her employment, and to even prevent her from practicing medicine by limiting her medical credentials.

“When Dr. Velazquez sought an explanation for the adverse treatment to which she was being subjected, we allege that UM ratcheted up the retaliation,” said Sanford. “In fact, the University even threatened not to renew her medical credentials. These egregious actions by UM have severely and negatively affected Dr. Velazquez’s health, resulting in multiple recent emergency room hospitalizations for serious stress-related conditions.”

Although Dr. Velazquez took an approved FMLA leave in November 2022 because of her deteriorating health, UM’s mistreatment continued. The University’s actions included placing a moratorium on her communicating with staff and leadership during her leave and—just a few days before she returned—appointing an interim chair of the Department of Surgery in her stead, for no justifiable reason. Most recently, capping off its relentless assault, the University withheld part of her pay due from the previous fiscal year and then officially terminated her as Surgery Department Chair and Surgeon-in-Chief of the health system on the day that she returned from protected medical leave. The University’s institution-wide announcement of Dr. Velazquez’s removal falsely and irresponsibly suggested that her performance was deficient.

“Regrettably, we understand that UM has engaged in blatant discrimination and retaliation against Dr. Velazquez. UM has no legitimate justification for underpaying a world-class medical professional, besmirching her pioneering legacy, and ultimately removing her from the leadership positions she held at the University,” said Sanford. “The record will show that the UM Health System’s leadership retaliated against Dr. Velazquez solely for conduct that is legally protected in the workplace after she complained about discrimination and called attention to numerous safety and policy violations at the hospital that were not being addressed.”

The Complaint alleges violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Florida Civil Rights Act, and Florida’s Private Whistleblower’s Act, and the FMLA. Dr. Velazquez seeks damages, including back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and legal costs. In addition, she seeks equitable and injunctive relief to restore her to the position and pay she would be holding absent the University’s unlawful conduct.

A jury trial is requested on all counts.

About Sanford Heisler Sharp

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