June 20, 2012

Strip club visits by Maine Med doctors may pass legal muster

The 'tradition' lacked a business element, making discrimination hard to prove, an expert says.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — A "tradition" of male Maine Medical Center residents going to a strip club for lap dances during an annual conference might have been "bad practice," but it probably didn't violate laws against sexual discrimination or harassment, an employment law specialist said Tuesday.

Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness, a workers' rights advocacy group, said such outings would not be good "from a management perspective or a moral perspective," but they would be in "a gray area" regarding workplace equality laws.

Maine Medical Center has been sued by an administrator, Patrick O'Brien, who claims the hospital retaliated against him for blowing the whistle on the lap dances. The lawsuit alleges that O'Brien felt residents were pressured into going to the strip club by the doctors who oversaw their work.

The hospital has denied the allegations and declined to respond further, saying the matter is in litigation.

A spokesman for Maine Medical Center would not say Tuesday whether the hospital has a policy for employees' behavior at conferences, how many doctors and residents have attended the annual Northeast Sports Medicine Conference in Rhode Island, or how long the hospital has sent employees to the conference.

The lawsuit and a complaint that O'Brien filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission say doctors took male residents to a strip club while attending the conference, and female residents were not invited.

Brantner, who practices employment law, said business-social outings like trips to a strip club are "a consistent problem" in workplaces.

She said the issue often comes up in the entertainment of clients, when some employees – usually women – might miss out on opportunities for business deals or career advancement.

Brantner said the issue often comes up on Wall Street, where some employees might want to take clients to strip clubs. A female employee who decides not to go could be left out of a deal, she said, or might not be able to advance because she didn't take part.

Or, Brantner said, if the woman decides to go along, a strip club might create a hostile "work" environment.

"It's not how you want to run your workplace," she said.

That employee who suffers in the workplace could end up making a reasonable case for sexual discrimination, Brantner said.

The Maine Medical Center outings apparently didn't involve clients, patients or business dealings, she said, so it would be harder to prove discrimination.

If a female resident complained about the trip and then got a poor evaluation or suffered otherwise at work, she might be able to sue, Brantner said, but otherwise it would be hard to cite an adverse result.

O'Brien's lawsuit doesn't contend that any female residents suffered sexual discrimination after the outings. It focuses instead on what he said was retaliation against him for complaining about the strip club visit and confronting the doctor who allegedly organized the trip.

In dismissing a complaint filed by O'Brien, the Maine Human Rights Commission said Maine Medical Center claimed that the doctors who led the outing were reprimanded and barred from going to the strip club during future conferences.

The commission said it wasn't clear that O'Brien had suffered any retaliation for complaining.

But O'Brien's lawyer, Barbara Goodwin, said male residents were made to feel that going to the strip club was "almost a requirement."

"Not only are men being coerced into going, but women are sent back like second-class citizens," she said. "If the faculty member (supervising doctors) wants you to go to a strip club, you pack up your stuff and you go."

 

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