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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Trial starts on doctor’s claims of bias at MGH

A jury heard opening arguments Tuesday in a federal trial alleging gender discrimination by Massachusetts General Hospital and its doctors, a case that will put many of Boston’s biggest names in orthopedic surgery on the witness stand.

Dr. Nina Shervin, a former orthopedic surgery resident, was one of the few women in the orthopedics department, and she contends in her lawsuit that the hospital discriminated against her by placing her on probation and then, after she complained, by refusing to give her a permanent job. The hospital and doctors deny Shervin’s assertions and contend that her performance was subpar.

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The trial is expected to last five weeks and provide glimpses into the high-pressure world of surgery training at Mass. General and perhaps briefly behind the curtain of another elite local institution, the New England Patriots.

Both sides have been allowed to file numerous documents under seal. The defendants asked US District Court Judge Denise J. Casper last month to exclude references at trial to a former Mass. General orthopedic fellow who said in a sworn deposition that in 2008 and 2009 she was not allowed to care for Patriots football players, unlike male trainees.

Dr. Thomas Gill, a Mass. General surgeon, is the team’s medical director, and other doctors at the hospital work with him to treat the players. Casper has not ruled on the defendants’ request.

Shervin’s lawsuit names Partners HealthCare, the parent company of Mass. General; Harvard Medical School; the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization; Dr. James Herndon, director of residency training; and Dr. Harry Rubash, chief of orthopedic surgery. Herndon and Rubash were in court Tuesday. Another well-known Mass. General orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Dennis Burke, is expected to testify in support of Shervin.

In her opening argument, Ellen Zucker, one of Shervin’s attorneys, told the jury of seven women and three men that the defendants put Shervin on probation, despite outstanding evaluations from many senior surgeons, because of a conflict with a male trainee and then retaliated against her when she complained about bias.

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Herndon, Zucker alleged, told another senior physician there must be something wrong with Shervin because “she didn’t cry — he had never seen a woman resident who did not cry’’ when he disciplined her.

Shervin’s suit also says that Partners officials interfered with her attempts to get jobs at two other hospitals after she finished her training at Mass. General in summer 2009.

“When she dared to raise her concerns, a systematic campaign began’’ to deny her jobs and derail her career, Zucker said. Shervin, 40, is now in private practice and does surgery at Beth Israel Deaconess Milton Hospital.

After the judge dismissed court for the day, Herndon’s attorney, Rebecca Wilson, said she could not respond to the statements about Herndon’s comments regarding Shervin not crying. She said he would address the claims in his testimony, which is scheduled for Wednesday.

Herbert Holtz, the attorney for Partners and the Mass. General physicians group, drew a very different picture of Shervin during his opening argument. Shervin, he said, was “a doctor full of promise and then lost the trust of her colleagues.’’

He said she had strong surgical skills but was put on probation because she repeatedly missed appointments, failed to visit patients, arrived late for surgeries, missed consultations, and off-loaded work onto other residents.

“This is not a case about men treating women badly,’’ he said. “These are the same men who hired her.’’

Wilson said during her opening statement that Herndon was simply doing his job, which was to monitor residents and discipline them for problems in an effort to keep patients safe.

Edward Mahoney, Rubash’s attorney, said that he had “nothing to do with placing Dr. Shervin on probation,’’ but that he met with her shortly afterward. “He said for her to learn from what has happened and go on to be the best resident you can be.’’

Part of Zucker’s intent is to prove there was a pattern of ignoring gender inequality in the Mass. General orthopedics department around the time Shervin trained there from 2003 to 2009. That is why she is seeking to bring in testimony of Dr. Karen Sutton, who was a fellow at the hospital in 2008 and 2009 and now practices at Yale New Haven Hospital.

During testimony she gave last September, a portion of which is filed in court, Sutton said she complained to Rubash about not being allowed to work with the Patriots. She said she was concerned, in part because she was the first female fellow in the program and all the fellows in the past had worked with the Patriots. In earlier testimony, also filed with the court, Rubash said she “was not permitted in certain areas of the stadium because of the team’s sensitivities.’’

Rubash said he felt it was not appropriate and asked Gill to “deal with that.” Rubash added, “I have no control over the Patriots organization.’’

Asked about the issue Tuesday, Patriots spokesman Stacey James said, “We don’t comment on pending litigation, especially when the legal matter does not involve us.”

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.

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