Nurse who opposed naming hospital after Facebook founder says he faces retaliation

Sasha Cuttler (Courtesy image)

An outspoken nurse says Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital officials retaliated against him after he publicly opposed renaming the hospital after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg raised concerns about understaffing.

In complaints filed with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Tuesday, ZSFGH nurse Sasha Cuttler alleged that he has been removed from oversight positions on various regulatory boards and denied promotions after advocating for patient protections.

Cuttler said he the retaliation began after he publicly opposed the addition of Zuckerberg’s name to the hospital’s signage in exchange for a $75 million donation in 2015. He cited concerns at the time over Facebook’s practice of contributing to unauthorized research on the company’s users, fearing that the relationship could subject patients to greater privacy threats.

The alleged retaliation got worse after Cuttler, the hospital’s Collaborative Alliance for Nursing Outcomes coordinator, warned administrators that decreasing staffing at the hospital could lead to an increased risk of patient falls, resulting in injuries, according to the complaints.

As CALNO coordinator, Cuttler is responsible for “collecting and analyzing data on hospital-acquired conditions, including patient falls,” per the complaint. Cuttler accused the hospital of not accurately collecting and reporting data on falls and related injuries.

In response to Cuttler’s objections to hospital administrators about these practices, ZSFGH “subjected him to a series of retaliatory employment actions,including removing him from the Hospital’s IRB, removing him from leadership of the Hospital’s Falls Task Force, denying him 15 transfer and promotional opportunities during this past year to advance his career despite his superior qualifications,” the complaint alleges.

Cuttler, who began working in the hospital as a nurse in 1987, was removed from serving on the hospital’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), an “entity charged with protecting rights and the welfare of human subjects involved in research activities” after refusing to curtail his advocacy against the hospital’s renaming in 2016, according to Debra Katz, Cuttler’s attorney.

“As a member of the IRB [Cuttler] played a role in reviewing proposals that came before the board to conduct certain research and to make sure the patients were properly protected,” said Katz, adding that Cuttler “acted in this role when raising issues” about the hospital’s rechristening.

In an editorial piece published in the San Francisco Examiner in November 2015, Cuttler wrote that “Zuckerberg’s Facebook has contributed to unethical research that may have negatively affected population mental health.”

He cited a 2014 study that revealed that Facebook selected 689,003 of its users to determine if they were affected negatively or positively by the emotions expressed by their friends’ posts, without first obtaining consent, according to the complaint.

After the editorial’s publication, the complaint alleges that Cuttler, who also serves as an assistant professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing, was told by various superiors — including a UCSF vice dean and several of ZSFGH supervisors — to “stand down.”

Cuttler did not heed this recommendation, and instead circulated a petition calling for Zuckerberg’s name to be stripped from the hospital, which he presented to then-mayor Ed Lee and The City’s Board of Supervisors after gathering more than 800 signatures.

According to the complaint, Cuttler was also prevented from advancing his career at the hospital and saw his role as CALNO coordinator “severely diminished” — a chain of events that Katz described as “clear discrimination.”

“He received repeated visits by his supervisors. The more he pressed the issue, the worse his work situation became,” said Katz.

ZSFGH spokesperson Brent Andrew said that the hospital’s administration was “not informed of these complaints by the employee and have not been officially informed of these complaints by the agencies contacted and, therefore, have not seen them.”

He added that he could not comment “pending a thorough review,” and that

ZSFG “follows all applicable federal, state and local labor laws and does not retaliate against employees under any circumstances.”

“We will cooperate fully with all investigations into this matter,” said Andrew.

Cuttler, who remains employed with ZSFGH, has not toned down his advocacy — his concerns were reignited early last year when revelations about Facebook having “approached several major U.S. hospitals seeking anonymized data about their patients” were made public, according to the complaint.

In May, Cuttler was joined by other ZSFGH nurses in a protest at the hospital renewing efforts to have the Zuckerberg name removed. The nurses were reportedly contemplating a ballot measure to place the issue before San Francisco voters.

In November, Supervisor Aaron Peskin joined the nurse’s call to reconsider the name. The San Francisco Examiner previously reported that Peskin introduced a request to the City Attorney’s Office to “revisit the policy” on accepting gifts in exchange for city naming rights, and requested an outline on procedures for pursuing a name change.

Katz said that the complaints filed Tuesday “could lead to determinations that the hospital subjected [Cuttler] to unlawful retaliation” and could be ordered to compensate him for “being denied positions for which he would have received greater compensation.”

She added that the complaints could also pave the way for a lawsuit against the hospital.

Sasha Cuttler (Courtesy image)

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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