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Former Steward Health Care executive files harassment suit against company

FROM MERLIN ARCHIVE DO NOT RESEND TO LIBRARY Norwood-8/25/2009- Caritas Christi CEO Ralph de la Torre at a meeting at Norwood Hospital talks with the Caritas hospital's presidents in a meeting room. Boston Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki(business) Library Tag 10052010 National/Foreign 05cerberus
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Ralph de la Torre.

A former top executive at Steward Health Care has sued the company for harassment and discrimination, saying she was subject to sexual and racial comments that were part of an overall management culture that demeaned women and blacks.

Claudia Henderson, Steward’s former senior vice president of human resources, also named chief executive Ralph de la Torre and general counsel Joseph Maher Jr. in the lawsuit filed Monday in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston.

When Henderson protested the harassment, she was replaced with a less-qualified and higher-paid white male, according to the suit. She is now chief human resources officer at Boston Globe Media. She declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did her attorney, Ben Clements.

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In a statement e-mailed to the Globe, Steward’s attorney said “the allegations are completely unfounded.’’ Steward is a for-profit chain of hospital and physician groups that was formed in Massachusetts more than seven years ago.

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Henderson, who is African-American, alleged that the harassment began in 2012 — two years after she arrived at the company — when Joshua Putter, head of the hospitals division, became her primary internal client. At their first meeting together, Putter played and loudly sang the song “Afro Circus.” “I know you know Afro Circus,’’ he said, according to the lawsuit.

He began to call Henderson Mariah, referring to the singer Mariah Carey, and showed her a revealing picture of Carey in a nightgown. “Look at that. That’s good,’’ he is quoted as saying in court documents.

In March 2013, Henderson resigned and was recruited by Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz, a former Steward executive, to serve as his chief of staff. Before she left Steward, Putter followed her into a meeting and said, “She comes in here looking all sexy and tan with all that curly hair. She looks so hot in that red dress. I don’t think I can contain myself,’’ according to the lawsuit, which was first reported Wednesday by the Boston Business Journal.

When he saw her eating a banana for breakfast, Putter said, “And now she’s got a banana in her mouth! I can’t contain myself.’’

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She said a reprimand was put in Putter’s file and he later apologized to her.

Putter could not immediately be reached for comment.

Putter left Steward for unrelated reasons, and was indicted in Florida for obstructing a federal health care investigation. A jury acquitted him of that charge in November 2014.

In fall 2016, Polanowicz, who had returned to Steward, recruited Henderson back to the company as senior vice president of human resources at an annual salary of $340,000, the lawsuit said. The company was in the process of buying eight hospitals from a company called Community Health Systems. She was told she would be responsible for integrating human resources for the new group and any future Steward national acquisitions.

Then, in March 2017, the company rehired Putter as interim vice president of Community Health Systems, despite his history of sexual and racial harassment, the suit said. Henderson said that when she expressed her concern to Maher, he minimized the issue and said he would make sure Putter “knows we are watching him.’’

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Soon after, Henderson said, the company’s top leaders retaliated against her.

‘The manage-ment team — consisting predom-inately of white men — has little tolerance or respect for persons outside of that group.’

She was effectively demoted, the suit said, and told she would be in charge of human resources only for the company in Massachusetts. At first, Maher said the company was not proceeding with plans to centralize human resources for the entire company. But several months later, Steward hired Patrick Lombardo, a white male, to oversee a companywide integrated human resources department, according to the suit.

Lombardo was hired as senior vice president of human resources, the same title Henderson had, at a salary significantly higher than hers — $450,000 — the suit says.

Even though Polanowicz had repeatedly praised her performance and acknowledged his puzzlement at her treatment, the lawsuit said, Henderson was asked to resign effective in January.

Steward attorney Timothy Van Dyck disputed Henderson’s version of events.

“The indisputable facts are that Ms. Henderson left of her own accord in 2013 and Steward rehired her in 2016 to an even higher-level position than she had resigned from,’’ he said in an e-mail. “Her departure in 2017 resulted from a series of mergers by Steward which included the addition of a number of senior HR professionals in much larger geographies.”

But after her return to Steward, Henderson said in court documents, it became clear that “the culture remains one in which the management team, consisting predominately of white men, has little tolerance or respect for persons outside of that group, and abundant tolerance for sexual and racial harassment and discrimination.’’

Other executives, she alleged, also made racist and sexist remarks. One executive vice president called a complaint filed against him by an African-American “ridiculous,’’ and told Henderson that she was his “favorite black person.”

The chief marketing officer repeatedly made inappropriate remarks, calling two white female employees his “beautiful girls’’ and using crude, sexual language in front of a newly single female employee, the lawsuit said.

“We believe the allegations are completely unfounded, and we look forward to our day in court,’’ Van Dyck said. “The insinuations of racial bias against Dr. Ralph de la Torre, a minority executive of Latin American descent, are preposterous as are the insinuations against the chief marketing officer.”

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at lizbeth.kowalczyk@globe.com.