Court Case: Sonnino v. University of Kansas Hospital Authority, et al.

Case History

Roberta Sonnino, former professor of surgery and section chief of pediatric surgery at University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMED), sued the University of Kansas Hospital Authority and others alleging, in part, retaliation for complaining about sex discrimination in violation of Title VII and pay inequity in violation of Title VII and the Equal Pay Act.

KUMED hired Sonnino in 1998 as a tenured professor of surgery and section chief of pediatric surgery. She was one of only a few female surgeons in the hospital and the only female section chief. Sonnino claimed that following her appointment, KUMED administrators resisted her efforts to improve the way the hospital handled pediatric patient care, denying her access to critical resources and staff. She believed that KUMED then began to retaliate against her for reporting her concerns regarding patient care.

During the course of her employment, Sonnino claimed that junior male staff members mocked her authority and fellow male colleagues criticized her as “too aggressive,” “domineering,” and “disruptive.” However, those staff members failed to raise any concerns about the truly disruptive behavior of male surgeons. In addition, during one of three “Correction Action Proceedings” initiated against Sonnino, KUMED’s Chief of Surgery stated that Sonnino’s gender made her a target for staff complaints, which would continue as long as she remained visible at the hospital. Sonnino later discovered that a male pediatric surgeon she helped to recruit was paid more than she, despite the fact that she held a higher position. When KUMED proposed to reduce Sonnino’s salary — while maintaining the salary level of the surgeon she helped recruit — Sonnino formally requested that the university have her salary level reinstated.

The most glaring form of retaliation came in Fall 2002 in response to a surgical procedure that she had performed. Though two independent medical reviewers determined that Sonnino had met the standard of care throughout the procedure, KUMED nonetheless suspended her clinical privileges pending the outcome of her internal appeal and recommended permanent revocation of her medical staff membership. The institution also reported the suspension to the National Practitioners Data Bank and the State Licensing Board. Sonnino ultimately resigned from her position at KUMED and accepted a position at another medical center, where she served as surgeon–in–chief. Even after her resignation to accept a new position, which automatically relinquished her privileges at KUMED, the hospital claimed that it had “revoked her privileges” and made another false report to the Data Bank.

In 2002, Sonnino filed suit in federal court. The parties reached a confidential settlement in 2005.

Key Case Issues

Pay inequity in violation of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and retaliation for complaining about sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.