Metro

Jury awards black nurse $28 million in hospital retaliation suit

The Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
Jonathan Wiggs\Globe Staff
The Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

A Haitian-American nurse who sued Brigham and Women’s Hospital for discrimination and retaliation was awarded more than $28 million by a jury Wednesday — an amount several attorneys said is the largest verdict of this type in Massachusetts.

Gessy Toussaint sued the hospital in 2014, describing in her lawsuit how she stuck up for another Haitian-American nurse who she believed was the victim of verbal abuse. After that, Toussaint said, the Brigham targeted her, investigating her for numerous instances of allegedly poor patient care.

A Suffolk Superior Court jury deliberated for more than three days. It said that Toussaint did not prove race discrimination but agreed that the Brigham and manager Mary Ann Kenyon were guilty of retaliation. Most of the award — $25 million — was for punitive damages.

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Allison MacLellan, Toussaint’s attorney, said her 70-year-old client cried when the jury read the verdict and likened her to David fighting Goliath.

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“This is a monumental verdict, and it really shows the jury was outraged at the treatment of this lifelong nurse,’’ MacLellan said. It’s “sending a message to the Brigham and other institutions that retaliating against someone for standing up for what’s right won’t be tolerated.’’

The hospital and Kenyon plan to appeal.

“While it is gratifying that the jury found no evidence of racial discrimination in this case, we strongly disagree with the finding of retaliation and intend to pursue all legal avenues to appeal this verdict,’’ Brigham spokeswoman Erin McDonough said in a statement.

Toussaint and her Haitian-American colleague Nirva Berthold filed a joint lawsuit against the hospital, but Toussaint’s claims were the first to go to trial. She became involved in the case because she defended Berthold, who had nursed cancer patients at the Brigham for nine years.

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Berthold had decided to seek a higher-paying position as a nurse educator in orthopedics. She alleged that the Brigham turned her down for the promotion in January 2013 because she is black — an allegation the hospital denied. White nurses have always held the job and Kenyon eventually hired a white woman for it, according to the lawsuit.

The suit alleged that the Brigham also refused to give Berthold credentials to train nurses at the hospital, citing two separate complaints of unprofessional behavior, one from the wife of an oncology patient and another from a doctor. Toussaint witnessed Berthold’s argument with the doctor over how to handle a disruptive patient and told managers that the doctor verbally abused her colleague.

That is when the retaliation began, said Toussaint, who had worked at the Brigham since 1999. At one point, she said, Kenyon required her to take a test usually given to new nurses to assess their knowledge. Toussaint scored 100 percent.

On another occasion, Toussaint said, Kenyon told her she was being put on administrative leave because a doctor complained about her handling of a patient emergency. When Toussaint said the doctor actually complimented her, Kenyon said it was the patient’s wife who had complained, according to the lawsuit. When Toussaint pointed out the wife wasn’t there, Kenyon said colleagues had complained.

Berthold still works at the Brigham, as a care coordinator, while Toussaint resigned in 2015.

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Employment lawyers said the $25 million verdict for punitive damages was the largest they have seen in an employment discrimination and retaliation case in Massachusetts. The hospital, however, could ask Judge Christine Roach to reduce that amount.

‘This is a monumental verdict, and it really shows the jury was outraged at the treat-ment of this lifelong nurse.’

Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston employment lawyer who represents plaintiffs, called the verdict “phenomenal.’’ While she said she is not aware of a larger award in this type of lawsuit, she said relatively few cases make it all the way to trial without being settled first.

Liss-Riordan said it is not unusual for employees to win claims of retaliation but not their underlying allegations of discrimination, as the former claims are usually more straightforward to prove.

“With a verdict of that size, the jury was clearly very angry at the defendant. Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant,’’ she said.

The total jury award included $463,000 in lost wages and $2,750,000 for emotional distress. In awarding her $25 million in punitive damages, the jury found that the defendants’ conduct was “outrageous or egregious, involving evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of others,’’ according to court documents.

The trial comes amid a backdrop of concern about the lack of minority nurses in Massachusetts and nationwide. Six to 10 percent of registered nurses in the country are black, according to various estimates, while blacks make up 13 percent of the population.

At the Brigham, seven of 89 nurse managers are black (8 percent), and 180 of 3,250 staff nurses are black (5.5 percent). McDonough said the hospital has partnered with two college nursing programs to increase diversity by providing scholarships for bachelor’s degree programs.

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