ROCHESTER, N.Y. (CN) – A black surgeon says the Department of Veterans Affairs fired him for complaining about a fellow surgeon’s racist and demeaning behavior, which culminated in a “lynched” stuffed monkey being placed on his office door.
In his federal complaint, Dr. Mark Awolesi says that when he complained about the intimidation, Dr. Carlos Li, chief of cardiac surgery for the VA hospital in Buffalo, told him he was “too sensitive.”
Awolesi’s complaint cites numerous instances of disturbing, allegedly racist behavior.
Watching news footage of Hurricane Katrina in the conference room spurred Awolesi to comment that he wanted to go to Louisiana and help victims, to which Li allegedly responded, “What? You just want to go there and loot.”
Awolesi says that during the Don Imus brouhaha in 2007, Li told his own version of a “nappy headed ho” joke while in the surgery clinic with Awolesi. Awolesi says Li told him he knew it would “upset” him, and he understood the implications of the jokes, but he “did not care.”
Awolesi says Chief of Surgery Dr. Miguel Rainstein didn’t care either, and threatened to fire him if he did not cooperate with Li.
Awolesi claims that “Dr. Li started to marginalize the plaintiff by performing most of the cardiac surgery cases on the service,” and that during this time the hospital saw a 600 percent increase in cardiac surgery-related deaths.
Also at this time, the lynched monkey appeared on Li’s door in the common office he shared with Awolesi, according to the complaint. Awolesi says the monkey was removed after he and his black secretary accused Li of racial intimidation, but says it was later “restaged” on his bookcase.
Awolesi’s secretary was fired for filing a compliant with the EEOC after the hospital failed to take action, the complaint alleges. She filed a federal lawsuit in connection with the claims.
Awolesi was also fired, with Rainstein attributing the firing to “budgetary problems,” according to the complaint.
Awolesi says the hospital had no legitimate reason to fire him.
A spokesperson for the VA Western New York Healthcare System said Tuesday that the agency does not comment on specific cases.
Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, is named as a defendant, along with Drs. Li and Rainstein.
Awolesi is represented by Christina Agola.