A Sri Lanka–born physician at King-Drew Medical Center has won his appeal in a long-fought legal case in which he argued that he was denied a promotion for 16 years simply because he was not African-American.
Last week’s decision by the Second District State Court of Appeal reinstated a finding by the county’s Civil Service Commission that Subramaniam Balasubramaniam was denied the chairmanship of the hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine because of his race. The appellate court sent the case back to the lower court to settle damages. Balasubramaniam told the Weekly, “I don’t want the money. The bottom line is, I want the job.”
Balasubramaniam, better known to his friends and colleagues simply as “Dr. Bala,” said that he became acting head of the department at Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center and its associated Charles R. Drew University Medical School in 1978. Balasubramaniam says part of his job was to get the department, which serves the low-income and high-crime areas of south Los Angeles County, up and running. He now works at King-Drew in areas other than emergency medicine.
According to the court findings, Balasubramaniam sought to have his de facto chairman job declared official in 1984. The then-dean of the school, Alfred Haines, allegedly told Balasubramaniam that he could only be appointed chairman on the condition that he groom an inexperienced African-American, Dr. Casper Glenn, for the job. Balasubramaniam declined the job on the basis that to favor one individual as successor would be discriminatory, and an African-American was appointed acting chairman in Balasubramaniam’s stead; in 1991, that chairman’s successor, Dr. William Shoemaker, tried to appoint Balasubramaniam as his assistant. Instead, Dr. Eugene Hardin, an African-American, was appointed vice chairman in 1994.
According to the court findings, “Hardin added 10 points to the scores of African-American applicants for the department.” In 1996, the Weekly reported a county finding that Hardin had, on his official résumé, exaggerated his publishing track record.
Shoemaker was eventually forced out due to his own qualification problems. In 1994, Dr. H. Range Hutson, an African-American and former student of Balasubramaniam who was not a civil-service employee, was appointed emergency chairman, although the appropriate notices for the job opening were not posted, according to the findings. Balasubramaniam, again, was never considered, although he was, according to the findings, the highest-ranking and most experienced doctor in the department. Hutson resigned after the county found that as a non-county employee, he had no authority to manage the department. He was replaced by Dr. Ed Savage, an African-American, who alleged that the reason Balasubramaniam wasn’t hired was that he lacked proper professional qualifications. Savage himself was a gynecologist without emergency-medicine credentials, according to the findings.
Balasubramaniam brought his discrimination case to the county’s Civil Service Commission in 1996. The commission’s hearing officer concluded that race was a determining factor in Balasubramaniam’s repeated rejection for the chairmanship, and recommended he be given the job. But the county appealed the case to Superior Court, where the civil-service ruling favoring Balasubramaniam was turned over in 1998 on a technicality involving the authority of the hearing officer to make such a finding.
The appellate court ruled that the commission finding was correct, so that “The county and MLK-Drew [were barred] from relitigating the issues.” Balasubramaniam accordingly won his appeal.
Deputy County Counsel Philip Miller said a decision has not yet been made whether to appeal. Balasubramaniam said he was seeking a trial by jury to determine the damages due him. “I want it to make me whole,” he said.