Researcher wins her suit over denial of 'mentoring'

April 02, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

A female medical researcher won a landmark case yesterday against the Bethesda-based National Institute of Mental Health -- a decision that could expand the arena for sex discrimination suits nationwide.

Dr. Margaret Jensvold's case was unique for what she claimed the agency denied her: mentoring. As the only female physician in her research group, she was handed insignificant projects, and was sometimes excluded from important meetings and conferences, she said. When she objected, her supervisor retaliated by refusing to conduct tests for one of her projects.

Dr. Jensvold, trained at Johns Hopkins' medical school, claimed that access to networking and support from her supervisor, crucial to professional success, should be protected under the Civil Rights Act. Yesterday, a U.S. District Court jury in Baltimore agreed, although Dr. Jensvold was awarded only token damages.

The case had been closely watched by a number of professional women's organizations nationwide. Many predicted that the verdict would reinforce workplace protections for women in academia, the sciences and other professions in which apprentice-type jobs are a key to advancement.

"This has very broad applications to a type of discrimination that hasn't been well-litigated," said Georgetown University law professor Gary Peller, who specializes in discrimination issues. He likened it to successful legal challenges to private men's clubs.

"It's clearly understood now that a lot of business occurs at those clubs -- the relationship between mentoring and researchers is very similar," he said.

The Jensvold case is one of several against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its affiliates. Those cases have drawn national attention to allegations of sex discrimination at the prestigious medical and research center.

"It's a moral victory not only for women at NIH but for women in general who have such difficulties getting fair treatment," said Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women.

Dr. Jensvold, 37, who is now in private practice in Bethesda and Washington, D.C., yesterday said she was thrilled by the decision of the jury of five women and three men. "I hope the finding in this case helps NIH and others to conclude it is better to deal with these problems than stonewall them."

Although she had asked for unspecified damages for injury to her professional reputation, the jury offered only $1. Dr. Jensvold's attorney, Lynne Bernabei, said she is considering moving for a new trial on just the damage issue.

The jury in the case served in an advisory role to U.S. District

Judge Deborah K. Chasanow, who will issue a formal ruling.

But Ms. Bernabei said the jury's decision can be overturned only if the judge finds that a reasonable juror could not have concluded that discrimination and retaliation had occurred.

"We think that would be impossible to find," Ms. Bernabei said.

Dr. Jensvold arrived at the National Institute of Mental Health on a prestigious two-year fellowship in 1987. Her credentials included a degree from Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine and a mention by the Association for Academic Psychiatry as one of the six "most promising" psychiatric residents in the United States.

Much of her suit was targeted at Dr. David Rubinow, her former supervisor. She claimed he assigned her to projects, then removed her from them, and discouraged her when she asked to work with him on review articles and other publications.

She testified that he criticized her for "not being dependent enough" on him and for being "attractive and competent." When she asked for a third year to complete work begun during her fellowship, he refused.

Dr. Rubinow strongly denied making any of the comments. Government lawyers argued that Dr. Jensvold had failed to set priorities and could not apply herself to finish her projects.

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