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Doctor accuses UND and Sanford of discrimination, retaliation after she alleged sexual harassment

Dr. Fiona Axelsson alleged continued sexual harassment by her supervisor in a medical residency program, and accuses UND and Sanford of discriminating and retaliating against her after she filed harassment complaints. Sanford said it will "vigorously" defend itself.

Fiona Axelsson.jpg
Dr. Fiona Axelsson.
UND medical residency photo
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FARGO — A female medical resident claims in a federal lawsuit that she was sexually harassed by her physician supervisor and that the University of North Dakota and Sanford Health discriminated and retaliated against her after she filed a complaint.

The lawsuit, filed by Dr. Fiona Axelsson in U.S. District Court in Fargo on Monday, April 4, accuses Dr. Jason Myrmoe, her residency supervisor at Sanford Health, of repeatedly sexually harassing her during a period of eight months.

Axelsson had an “exemplary work record” during her first year of medical residency in 2019, her lawsuit said, but problems began in July 2020 when she was under Myrmoe’s supervision.

The harassing behavior started as Myrmoe making comments such as “you’re too emotional” and “get some sleep” and later involved openly “leering” at Axelsson, sometimes in the presence of others, the lawsuit said.

Myrmoe “repeatedly would check out Dr. Axelsson and other female Residents and nurses while they were working at Sanford,” the lawsuit said. At first, Axelsson “let it slide” as “typical male behavior,” but the harassment continued and she filed a complaint with the University of North Dakota’s Title IX program, which prohibits sexual discrimination, and human relations at Sanford Health.

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Sanford and UND, which have not filed answers to the lawsuit, did not provide detailed responses to Axelsson’s allegations, laid out in a 34-page lawsuit.

“We are aware of the lawsuit filed by Dr. Axelsson,” Dr. James Volk, a Sanford vice president, said in a statement. “We will defend this case vigorously. We will be filing our response soon and cannot comment further on pending litigation.”

David Dodds, a UND spokesman, declined to comment. “We do not have a comment at this time, as the University does not comment on ongoing investigations,” he said.

UND and Sanford investigated Axelsson’s claims and led them to find “areas of improvement” for Myrmoe, according to the lawsuit. Arrangements were made so Axelsson no longer would have to work alone with Myrmoe.

“Despite the repeated assurances of Sanford employees, Dr. Axelsson continued experiencing harassing conduct from Dr. Myrmoe,” the lawsuit said. Between October and December of 2020 she was “repeatedly put in uncomfortable positions with Dr. Myrmoe by Defendants UND and Sanford, despite having been promised she would not have to work with Dr. Myrmoe.”

Because Sanford and UND were unable to find an alternate for Myrmoe, her clinical experiences were canceled multiple times, often at the last minute, “negatively affecting” Axelsson’s education and professional training.

One alleged example of harassment came on Jan. 5, 2021, when Axelsson was with two colleagues and Myrmoe came in. “Dr. Myrmoe proceeded to unashamedly check Dr. Axelsson out, moving his eyes up and down, very slowly, leering at her,” according to the lawsuit. Later, Axelsson told one of her colleagues the encounter made her very uncomfortable and asked if she was overreacting.

“The other coworker agreed with Dr. Axelsson’s assessment and said she was not overreacting and that Dr. Myrmoe had done that to her as well,” the lawsuit said.

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After that incident, Axelsson filed a second harassment complaint with UND and Sanford, and both launched a new investigation.

Dr. Lara Lunde, who replaced Myrmoe as director of the family medicine residency program at Sanford, told an investigator on Jan. 11, 2021, that Myrmoe gave her an “unsolicited back massage in the presence of another medical resident and two nurses,” Axelsson’s lawsuit said.

That incident happened a few weeks earlier, after Axelsson’s initial complaint of sexual harassment had been filed with UND and Sanford, according to the lawsuit.

Lunde told a Sanford investigator that she had met with Myrmoe and told him “the residents did not trust him and he was offending residents with his personality,” the lawsuit said. Lunde told investigators she “worries about Myrmoe’s interaction with women” and told him he could not meet one-to-one with another female resident without her being present, according to the lawsuit.

After Myrmoe’s sexual harassment complaint was “substantiated,” he was removed from his role as program director in February 2021 and transferred to his former clinic role at Sanford, the lawsuit said.

Lunde, then residency program director, pulled Axelsson aside and told her she needed to “just be careful for the next little while” and “ ‘let the dust settle’ ” after filing her second harassment complaint, the lawsuit said.

Lunde made it clear to Axelsson that “she needed to keep quiet for the sake of her own career and keep what happened to herself,” according to the lawsuit. Lunde told Axelsson that the directive was “coming from the top” at Sanford, adding it came from the “President of Sanford.”

Bryan Nermoe, who was president of Sanford Fargo operations at the time, voluntarily resigned his position in March 2022. He did not respond to a request from The Forum for comment on the lawsuit.

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Axelsson claims she was retaliated against for her complaints of sexual harassment and has had mental health struggles as a result, becoming severely depressed and suicidal. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance use disorder, the lawsuit said.

“She had started to binge drink on weekends in order to try and cope with the harassment and forget what was happening at work,” telling her therapist that she was depressed and suicidal for the first time in her life, the lawsuit said.

Axelsson was open with her employer about the mental health issues, voluntarily sought treatment and was approved for medical leave in April 2021. Citing the “harassment and discrimination,” the lawsuit said Axelsson “suffered a severe mental breakdown” and was hospitalized from April 20 through Aug. 30, 2021.

Despite the conflict with Sanford, Axelsson was recruited by Sanford Clinic North in Perham, Minn., to work after she completed her residency, and signed a contract on Oct. 23, 2020, the lawsuit said.

Sanford later rescinded the contract, and Axelsson accuses Sanford of breach of contract. Despite Axelsson’s request for an accommodation to return to work in September 2021, Sanford sent her a letter accusing her of not fulfilling the conditions of her contract, making the contract void.

Axelsson’s lawsuit also accused Sanford of conducting an investigation to find “negative information” about Axelsson, and said Sanford and UND “conspired” to dismiss her from the residency program.

Axelsson appealed her dismissal from the UND residency program. On Jan. 13, 2022, a review panel ruled in Axelsson’s favor after a hearing and on Feb. 22 recommended that the family medicine residency program “seek to find creative options” to allow Axelsson to resume her residency training, the lawsuit said.

The review panel gave Axelsson until July 1 to find a training site and, if she is unable to do so, could uphold her dismissal.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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