Lawsuit claims University of Maryland medical school ignored sexual harassment complaints

and Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Carly Goldstein says the text messages lit up her phone at all hours of the day and night.

“You are smoking hot in the way that I enjoy,” a supervisor texted her in July of 2015.

“I would give a pinky to have you for 24 hours,” he wrote a few months later.

For three years, Dr. Robert Crawford, a vascular surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center and a professor at the affiliated University of Maryland medical school, sexually harassed her, Goldstein alleges in a federal lawsuit.

Goldstein, a 31-year-old former research coordinator, is suing the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and its School of Medicine, saying officials ignored her pleas to intervene and failed to take action to stop persistent harassment.

Instead, between 2014 and 2017, Crawford continued to make unwanted advances toward Goldstein that were dismissed by supervisors and disregarded by a university investigative body, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

An investigation by The Baltimore Sun has found that three other women complained to the university about Crawford’s behavior, saying he harassed them or other women and that superiors failed to take action to stop the behavior. Two of those women provided The Sun copies of their written communications with administrators in the university’s Title IX office, which investigates claims of sexual harassment.

Those women and three others who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation describe an atmosphere where inappropriate comments were accepted as part of the male-dominated vascular surgery department. Among them are two female surgeons who say they eventually left the department because of the harassment.

Attorney General Brian Frosh on Friday filed a response on behalf of the university, asking for the lawsuit to be dismissed. He writes that Goldstein was never technically an employee of the university or on its payroll. Instead, Goldstein worked for a foundation located in the Baltimore VA Medical Center alongside doctors who were also part-time faculty members at the university, his response states.

University officials said they addressed Goldstein’s complaints, and that they had no comment on the litigation.

“The University of Maryland, Baltimore takes allegations of harassment and mistreatment very, very seriously,” Alex Likowski, UMB’s executive director of media relations, said in a statement. “As soon as this matter was brought to our attention we investigated immediately and promptly took reasonable steps to address the complaints. However, since this is a pending legal and personnel matter, I can’t address the specific allegations, the results of our investigation or any actions taken by the university at this time.” Likowski was speaking for UMB, which includes the medical school.

Frosh’s response states that the university’s Title IX office took reasonable steps to investigate Goldstein’s allegations. In the end, officials concluded that Goldstein and Crawford had a relationship that voluntarily extended beyond that of strictly work colleagues, and that Dr. Crawford could reasonably conclude that his advances were not unwelcome.”

Still, the university determined “Crawford had shown poor judgment, and thereafter the University elected to not renew his faculty contract,” the response states.

Crawford, who left the university last year and now works in Atlanta, declined to comment through his lawyer.

The Sun does not typically name alleged victims of sexual misconduct. But Goldstein said she wanted to speak publicly in hopes the university would be forced to “address the environment that allowed a predator to thrive.”

“I’m proceeding with this and coming forward because I truly hope at some point it will enact change, that they will address sexism” in the surgery department, she said in an interview with The Sun.

The lawsuit, filed in August, alleges Crawford pursued Goldstein relentlessly beginning in April of 2014. It claims he told her he was having difficulty concentrating on his work because he was looking at her body. Goldstein was at the time jointly employed as a research coordinator by the Baltimore Research and Education Foundation and the university medical school, the lawsuit states. BREF is also named as a defendant in the suit.

“The Baltimore Research and Education Foundation (BREF) is committed to maintaining a workplace free of sexual harassment,” Caroline Zink, executive director of BREF, said in a statement. “BREF complied with its obligations under federal and state anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws with respect to Ms. Goldstein. Because this is a pending litigation, we are unable to comment any further on this issue.”

Among other high-ranking positions, Crawford was an associate professor in the University of Maryland medical school and medical director of the Vascular Surgery Progressive Care Unit at the University of Maryland Medical Center before leaving in 2017. He also conducted federal research at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.

He now works in the Emory University School of Medicine. A university spokeswoman said, “Emory does not discuss hiring decisions."

Goldstein worked for Crawford and other doctors on their research studies from 2014 to 2017. Her lawsuit alleges that when she would ask Crawford to sign off on documents and complete other necessary tasks as her supervisor, he would meet her request with “a demand that Goldstein agree to go to a bar with him.”

The alleged harassment escalated over the next three years, Goldstein said in an interview, even as she says she emphasized she was not interested in pursuing a romantic relationship.

Crawford once took her “to a local bar under the pretense that he was taking her to a cadaver lab for work-related purposes,” the lawsuit states.

In an interview, Goldstein acknowledged that despite the alleged harassment, she sometimes agreed to meet Crawford for dinner or drinks. Now 31, she said she looks back and chides herself for not being more forceful in confronting Crawford about his inappropriate comments as soon as they began. But in her 20s, at a job that she hoped would lead to graduate school and a career in medicine, she said she was willing to put up with it.

“I just saw him as a frat guy that was obnoxious,” she said. “I thought I could manage him.”

In the lawsuit, she alleges that Crawford twice touched her non-consensually, once in November 2015 and once in July 2016.

The two met at the Brewer’s Art bar and restaurant in November 2015, the lawsuit states, and “Crawford reached his arm around Goldstein, touched her legs and thigh and commenced kissing her against her will.” Goldstein’s suit says she repeatedly told him to stop and began sobbing. The suit said the bartender came over to see what was wrong. She said in an interview that she grabbed her purse and ran out of the restaurant, and still jumps when someone reaches out for an unexpected touch.

Shortly after she rejected him at the restaurant, according to the lawsuit, Crawford tried to fire Goldstein from his division.

The lawsuit states Goldstein was called into another doctor’s office and informed that Crawford wanted to remove her from his division. Dr. Shahab Toursavadkohi, another vascular surgeon, said he recognized Crawford’s request as retaliation, according to the suit.

This doctor told Goldstein he would “handle it” but that she should expect to be asked out because she is a “pretty girl,” the lawsuit states.

Asked for comment, Toursavadkohi replied with a brief statement. “This is an unfortunate story and I feel bad for Carly,” Toursavadkohi wrote in an email to The Sun. “I’ve always thought that I protected Carly but it seems that she doesn’t recognize it.”

Though she remained employed after the incident, Crawford would remind Goldstein that his work supported her salary, the lawsuit states.

She says she thought his word had the power to derail or accelerate her career.

“I felt like if I told him no, I’d lose my letter of recommendation to grad school,” she said in an interview. “He always held that over my head.”

Goldstein said Crawford was at times helpful to her career, mentoring her and involving her in projects that were published. The two exchanged roughly 4,500 text messages over the three years she alleges he sexually harassed her, discussing topics both related and unrelated to work.

She said in an interview that she felt she had to “keep him at bay.”

Goldstein’s suit says she reported the incidents to other supervisors in the medical school, but they shrugged off her fears and made dismissive comments about her experiences. She eventually went to the Title IX office, but she alleges investigators failed to dig into some of her most serious claims or interview her witnesses. They appeared biased to Crawford’s version of events, according to her lawsuit.

When she received a draft copy of the Title IX investigative report in April 2017, Goldstein’s suit alleges, it “contained many inaccuracies and key omissions.”

The university ultimately found that no hospital policy violation took place, according to the lawsuit.

“I had trouble processing that. How could anyone look at this and see what he did and say he did nothing wrong?” she said. “I felt like I was being gas-lit.”

In February and March of 2017, Goldstein filed discrimination charges with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In April, she resigned from her position, taking a pay cut of $25,000 for a different job in the same medical system.

Goldstein’s formal complaints against the doctor came months before a series of allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein would set off a national reckoning about the way women are treated in the workplace and elsewhere. It was one of a series of complaints about Crawford.

One woman who used to work with Crawford, who asked not to be named for fear it would hurt her career, shared the university’s draft copy of notes from a 2017 interview with Title IX representatives and the university’s counsel in which she, too, describes inappropriate behavior by Crawford. The notes describe similar types of harassment — sexual comments in the workplace, non-consensual touching and veiled threats that he could derail the woman’s career. The woman now works at another prominent hospital out of state.

She was interviewed by university officials because someone in the hospital reported her experiences to a supervisor, according to the notes.

The medical center and university jointly investigated her case, and ruled — as with Goldstein’s — that no violation of policy had occurred.

Another woman, a vascular surgeon at another hospital in the region, who asked not to be identified because she still works in the field, described inappropriate behavior by Crawford at professional conferences. She said Crawford would talk about wanting to sleep with her, and made her so nervous that she made sure he never saw what floor she got off at on the hotel elevator.

“I should never feel uncomfortable going to my hotel room at a vascular surgery meeting,” she said in an interview with The Sun.

The chief of vascular surgery, Dr. Rajabrata Sarkar, was also told in 2014 that Crawford harassed a female sales representative by “demanding that a female product sales representative spend time alone with him in order for him to consider the products she was selling,” according to the lawsuit.

Sarkar referred questions to the university’s spokesman.

A doctor who was an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who asked not to be named because she still works in the field, said she reported harassment of the sales representative to her superiors and then suffered retaliation. She said her schedule was rearranged in a way that took away much of her work with patients.

“In retrospect, it was an active attack on my practice,” she told The Sun.

During a Title IX investigation of the incident, the woman said she reported the retaliation to the university but says investigators told her it was irrelevant to the case. She said that during her interview with investigators, they were not sympathetic.

“I left that meeting tears in my eyes,” she said.

The doctor shared with The Sun a signed copy of the letter she sent to university investigators detailing her complaints about retaliation and a hostile work environment for women.

In the letter, which she sent after meeting with Title IX representatives, she relates a story about a dinner where she was the only woman present.

“I was informed by Dr. Sarkar that I ‘should just be happy I get to eat at the table with the rest of the men,’” she writes. “I have had many female residents over the years come to me with complaints of gender bias, misogynistic comments and unfair treatment on the service.”

The woman says she left her position in 2017 because of the retaliation, and has taken a new job as a surgeon in another city.

Alexis Smith, who was a surgical resident at UMB and is a pediatric surgeon at an Atlanta hospital, said she witnessed an environment “that protected those who were violators of sexual harassment.”

There will always be men who attempt to harass and sexually assault women, she said, “but it is the institution itself that should provide the backbone of intolerance.”

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