Lehigh investigation clears doctor at wellness center
No evidence supporting fired medical assistant’s allegations, university tells students, staffers in email
An independent investigation found no evidence to support allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against a Lehigh University Health and Wellness Center doctor, the university said in an email to its students and staff last week.
The accusations, raised in a lawsuit by a former medical assistant who claimed she was fired for complaining, were investigated through extensive interviews and reviews of health center records, the email said.
The investigation found no evidence of misconduct or inappropriate contact involving Dr. Thomas Novak, a senior medical staff member who has been suspended since the university became aware of the lawsuit in June.
“Similarly, there is no evidence of any behavior that endangered students, violated patient examination and patient care policies, or that did not comport with the Center’s standards of care,” the university’s email says.
The email, signed by Vice President for Student Affairs Ricardo Hall and Equal Opportunity Compliance Coordinator Karen Salvemini, says the investigation will be the subject of a
final report, and more information will be released when it is finished. The university released the preliminary information “to assure the campus community that the Health & Wellness Center is a safe environment for our students,” the email says.
University spokeswoman Lori Friedman said the investigation was conducted by Elliott Greenleaf, a law firm experienced in internal investigations for organizations, including higher education. The final report will be delivered to the equal opportunity compliance coordinator but will not be made public to protect the privacy of those involved, Friedman said.
Christine Feit, a medical assistant who worked at the health center from 2008 until she was fired in May 2017, alleged she was a target of sexually charged comments by Novak about her clothing and body. It also says that Feit heard Novak make lewd remarks about students’ bodies, email inappropriate jokes and speak openly about his sexual desires of celebrities.
Feit said she also complained that Novak was inappropriately performing breast exams on students and had to be reminded to wear gloves during pelvic exams, “because he would attempt to proceed without them as per protocol,” the suit alleges.
The suit says Feit and other health center staff complained to Lehigh University human resources officials about Novak’s alleged misconduct in 2012 and 2016. On each occasion, Novak tearfully apologized, but no action was taken to address his behavior, the suit says. Feit alleges that after the second meeting, she was fired for allegedly making errors when treating students, the suit says. It claims her firing was actually in response to her complaints about Novak’s harassment and misconduct.
Lehigh University’s lawyer has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, noting that both the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission rejected Feit’s complaints because she waited too long to file them. Under federal law, a person who complains about harassment or discrimination must do so through those agencies before filing a civil lawsuit, so Feit’s case should be dismissed, the university’s lawyers argue.
The university also argues Feit’s lawsuit doesn’t make a case on first impression that her firing was a result of complaining about Novak’s alleged misconduct. No ruling has been made on the university’s motion.
“Similarly, there is no evidence of any behavior that endangered students, violated patient examination and patient care policies, or that did not comport with the Center’s standards of care.” —Lehigh University email to students and staff
Lehigh University said an independent investigation found no evidence of sexual harassment, improper contact or policy violations by a doctor who was accused in a lawsuit by a former medical assistant who alleged she was fired for complaining.