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Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn has agreed to pay nearly $5.5 million to settle a sexual harassment case in which a hospital doctor allegedly subjected more than 50 female employees to invasive touching and intrusive questions about their sex life during mandatory physical exams. It is the largest sexual harassment settlement ever in New York state, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, whose New York office brought the case with Beldock Levine & Hoffman, a New York firm representing the plaintiffs. “I am grateful to know that our system works to protect the rights of women and punish their abusers,” said Sheila Linz, a plaintiff in the case. The lawsuit alleges that while employed at Lutheran Medical from 1997 to 2000, Dr. Conrado Ponio fondled and touched the breasts and genitals of at least eight female nurses during pre-employment physical exams, asked prying and embarrassing questions, and threatened to deny or delay their employment if they did not cooperate. Several of the nurses subjected to Dr. Ponio’s alleged assaults during a December 1999 to January 2000 orientation complained to hospital management, and he was fired shortly after. A month later, Ponio was arrested on misdemeanor sexual abuse charges filed by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. However, the complaint alleges, the hospital knew or should have known as early as 1996, when Ponio was first hired, that he may have been sexually harassing female employees. Management received at least one complaint that Ponio unnecessarily required a woman to remove her bra during an exam, and had previously been the subject of a complaint filed in California in 1988, the complaint alleges. After the eight original plaintiffs brought the situation to the EEOC’s attention, it canvassed the rest of the hospital’s employees and discovered that at least 43 other women were also victimized, said Robert L. Herbst, a partner with Beldock Levine. After failing to successfully mediate a settlement between the parties, the agency sued the hospital. Wendy Z. Goldstein, president and chief executive of Lutheran Medical Center, said in a statement that the hospital “deplore[d]” the behavior of the doctor, “ which is contrary to everything in which we believe.” Goldstein, who took the post at Lutheran Medical two years ago, said that “much has changed” since the hospital first became aware of the complaints against Ponio. It has put in place a number of safeguards to “ensure that such intolerable behavior as Dr. Ponio’s cannot be repeated,” she said. EEOC Chairwoman Cari M. Dominguez took the opportunity to remind people in a statement that “sexual harassment in the workplace is not a thing of the past. To the contrary, it continues to be a serious problem for working women.” CONSENT DECREE The agency and the hospital have submitted a consent decree to Southern District of New York Judge Leonard B. Sand for approval. The proposed decree requires the hospital to pay $5.4 million in damages, implement a sexual harassment awareness training program and promise never to rehire Ponio. Ponio was ultimately found guilty of a non-criminal violation. His license to practice medicine in New York state was also revoked. Ponio’s lawyer, Stephen Mahler of Mahler Harris & Engel in Queens, N.Y., said that the hospital’s insurance company settled the case because it “did not want to face the specter of a jury listening to the testimony of 50 people gathered by the EEOC.” “The EEOC literally invited these people to complain,” he said, adding that “no one was physically hurt. They only decided they were emotionally injured after being asked by the EEOC.” Mahler added that there were no guidelines in place for pre-employment exams, and that Ponio was an infectious disease specialist who felt that certain exams were warranted. Bettina B. Plevan of Proskauer Rose represented the hospital.

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