Top photo courtesy Alexander Oganezov/Shutterstock
A high-profile Oregon physician who cofounded the national chapter of Time’s Up Health Care—which aims to combat sexual harassment and gender discrimination in medicine—is facing a professional reckoning after allegedly telling a female employee from the Veterans Affairs Medical Center that reporting sexual abuse at work was “Never worth it. Never.”
Esther Choo is among the state’s most well-known physicians and an outspoken, widely admired champion for race and gender equity issues. During the last year, she has frequently been a guest on CNN and MSNBC to speak about the nation’s COVID response; she has nearly 190,000 followers on Twitter, and was one of Portland Monthly’s Oregon Women honorees in 2020.
Since the Oregonian first reported news of the lawsuit, Choo, normally a prolific social media user, has gone quiet, with no new tweets since February 28. Reached Tuesday by Portland Monthly, Choo said she could “unfortunately could not comment at this time,” on the allegations in the lawsuit, but offered to forward the request for comment to "strategic communications" at Oregon Health & Sciences University.
Local advocates for women’s rights say that if true, the description of Choo’s involvement hits especially hard.
“A lot of people are disappointed and shocked and reading this news with a lot of heartache” says Grayson Dempsey, a longtime activist who is a former executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon. “What has been laid out in the lawsuit is a lot of gaslighting of victims, and it reads like their complaints were not taken seriously. It is hard to read from someone who has been a champion of safety in the workplace and the rights of victims and survivors.”
Time’s Up Health Care and its parent organization, Time’s Up, have been silent on the lawsuit and Choo’s alleged involvement thus far, tweeting instead in recent days in support of the women who have accused New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and rapper T.I. The organization did not respond to several requests for comment from Portland Monthly.
Some of Choo’s medical colleagues and cofounders of the organization’s health care arm, though, have said they are individually deeply disturbed by the lawsuit’s allegations.
I am angry & frustrated. I expect to hear from @TIMESUPHC @TIMESUPNOW about this. I believe survivors & this affidavit is damming. I have written to @choo_ek since she’s a co-author (yet we’ve never met in person) cause accountability matters. 🤬🤬🤬https://t.co/xdUfKyv9DR— Monica McLemore PhD, MPH, RN, FAAN #OnSabbatical (@mclemoremr) March 1, 2021
Meanwhile, Arghavan Salles, a scholar in residence at Stanford's school of medicine and one of the co-founders of Time's Up Health Care, tweeted that a statement from the larger organization is forthcoming, and that “the organization is bigger than one individual, and I know we all believe in the principles on which the organization was founded. We support and believe survivors. Always have, always will.”
The 39-page complaint filed by lawyers for the plaintiff paints a picture of a hospital system that was not fully responsive to abuse allegations against Jason Campbell, a resident known as the “Tik Tok Doc” for his viral dance videos made during the first months of the pandemic.
Among other details outlined in the complaint, the plaintiff allegedly told Choo that Campbell had unexpectedly come up on her from behind and pushed his erection into her backside.
According to the complaint, Choo responded “Ugh, I’m giving him feedback,” and then, several weeks later, when the plaintiff followed up with screenshot evidence of other reports of sexual misconduct by Campbell, Choo’s response was: “OMG. How should we handle.”
Choo also offered to “sit down” with Campbell herself, or ask his program director to do so, the affidavit states. Under official OHSU policy, all such complaints are to be promptly referred to the offices of human resources and the university’s office of affirmative action and equal opportunity, whose director, Laura Stadum, is also a founding member of Time’s Up Health Care.
Whitney Stark, a Portland lawyer who specializes in employment discrimination, says the facts outlined in the brief, if true, suggest a breakdown in procedures.
“Although there could be a unique circumstance, as a matter of course, I would not recommend that somebody who has received a report of harassment either by themselves or with the complainant engage in a direct dialogue with the person accused of the behavior prior to an investigation and prior to following a policy,” Stark says.
Both Stark and Dempsey say it is critically important for employers large and small to have clear sexual harassment policies and procedures in place, both for those who are reporting abuse and those who are mandatory reporters.
“Are there anonymous complaint reporting options? Multiple reporting options? Is the person protected once they have made a complaint? You want to see a robust investigation happen,” Stark says. “It doesn't mean that every complaint will result in a specific outcome. But you need people to trust the policy and that it will be followed.”
Oregon Health & Sciences University has said it “does not condone behavior as described in the lawsuit.”
In a March 2 statement, university officials said their Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity department received the complaint April 17, 2020, and that following an initial assessment, Campbell was removed from clinical duties and excluded from campus or contact with the plaintiff “shortly thereafter,” though the health system did not specify a timeline. According to the statement, Campbell was later “referred for dismissal,” but instead resigned before a dismissal hearing could be held in late October of 2020.
OHSU says it subsequently reported the events to the University of Florida, Campbell’s next employer, which suspended him this week after the Oregonian’s initial story.
The hospital’s statement did not directly address Choo’s role in the events described in the complaint.