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Former DHMC chaplain sues hospital, alleges discrimination in firing

  • Nwagbaraocha

  • Valley News — James M. Patterson A cross made of paint stirrers rests on a shelf on Wednesday in the living room of the Rev. John Nwagbaraocha, in Enfield. Nwagbaraocha, 64, originally of Nigeria, was ordained at 26, came to a parish in Louisiana 20 years ago, then worked as a chaplain at Fletcher Allen before coming to Dartmouth-Hitchcock in 2015. Valley News — James M. Patterson

  • “Working in a health care environment, you see people going through life’s challenges,” said the Rev. John Nwagbaraocha, who was a chaplain at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center before being fired in November. “It’s also good to watch life grow.”

Valley News
Published: 4/27/2018 1:19:05 PM

A former Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center chaplain who grew up in Nigeria is alleging that he lost his job at the Lebanon hospital because of employment discrimination, including criticism from his boss, a fellow clergyman, about his accent and demeanor.

In a lawsuit the Rev. John Nwagbaraocha filed in last week in U.S. District Court in Concord, the 64-year-old priest alleges that Dartmouth-Hitchcock and his direct supervisor Frank Macht, DHMC’s director of chaplaincy, discriminated against him based on his national origin, race, religion and age.

Nwagbaraocha, also known as Father John, was born in Abia State, Nigeria, according to the April 17 filing. He was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1980, and was 63 years old in November, at the time he alleges he was wrongfully terminated by Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

“I don’t think (Nwagbaraocha’s firing) had anything to do with the quality of work he did at Dartmouth-Hitchcock,” his Norwich-based attorney Geoffrey Vitt said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Nwagbaraocha’s lawsuit alleges that the discrimination included requiring him to work more hours than non-Catholic members of the department, Macht’s refusal to meet with him to discuss these hours and criticisms of his communication style.

It says Dartmouth-Hitchcock fired Nwagbaraocha, in part, because of what the lawsuit called his “accented speech and Nigerian manner of communicating,” which Nwagbaraocha asserts violated the Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against employment discrimination based on national origin.

The suit alleges that Macht and the hospital also violated the Civil Rights Act, as well as a state law against discriminatory practices by treating Nwagbaraocha differently than non-black and non-Catholic members of the department.

The suit further alleges that by asking Nwagbaraocha to change his “essential character and demeanor in order to keep his position as hospital chaplain,” the hospital system violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.

The hospital system declined to comment in an email last week.

“As a matter of policy Dartmouth-Hitchcock is prohibited from responding to inquiries about matters in pending litigation,” said Jennifer Gilkie, Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s vice president of communications and marketing.

Macht, reached by phone on Wednesday, also declined to comment.

The suit alleges that Macht, an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was the sole member of the department to oppose Nwagbaraocha’s hiring in February 2014. Macht subsequently became the director of the department.

The suit alleges that Nwagbaraocha received favorable reviews from previous employers, including Fletcher Allen Health Care – now the University of Vermont Medical Center – and from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock department’s previous director, Patrick McCoy. That changed under Macht’s leadership, which began in January 2015.

“Macht comes and (Nwagbaraocha) goes from being a great employee to being a bum,” Vitt said. “How can that be?”

Nwagbaraocha studied theology and was ordained in Nigeria. He moved to the United States in 1998 and is a U.S. citizen. He worked as a hospital chaplain in Nigeria, Louisiana and Vermont. He became a board-certified chaplain in 2004, completed a program in clinical pastoral education at UVM and earned a master’s degree in theology from St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt.

Vitt said that sometimes employees have changes in their lives that affect their work, such as health problems, emotional issues or substance use, but none of those were involved here.

Instead, Vitt said, Macht complained that Nwagbaraocha’s communication style was “too elliptical.” Though Vitt said Nwagbaraocha’s form of storytelling “is not for everybody,” it is “a way to try to make sense out of things.”

According to the suit, Macht, in written reviews, criticized Nwagbaraocha’s speaking and writing style, and suggested Nwagbaraocha initiated physical contact with patients, such as hugs when a smile would suffice.

Beyond that, the suit alleges that: “When Fr. John spoke at department meetings, Macht rolled his eyes and ignored what Fr. John said. ... When Fr. John made food for the department Macht refused to try it and simply walked away when it was offered to him.”

Even given that dynamic, Macht rated Nwagbaraocha’s performance as “meets expectations” in written reviews until mid-2016, the lawsuit said.

The tide seems to have changed three months after Nwagbaraocha opposed Macht’s proposal to change the name of the department to “Spiritual Care Center” from the “Chaplaincy Department” – a change that did not occur. In September 2016, Nwagbaraocha received a written warning, according to the lawsuit, asserting that he “communicated a sense of criticism and judgmentalism” in two incidents. It also said a nurse said he customarily greets her by giving her a hug; that he missed an opportunity to “read the mood in the room” in a visit with a family; and that he “pushed back” when paged to administer a sacrament at night.

The filing also alleges that Nwagbaraocha did not receive a merit pay increase in 2016, while other members of the department did.

During his nearly three years and nine months of employment at DHMC, the suit alleges that Nwagbaraocha worked an average of 80 hours per week and was on call every weekend, according to the filing. He and the only other Catholic priest on staff, who also is a person of color, were the only members of the hospital’s chaplaincy staff required to be on call every weekend, it asserted.

Last June, Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s human resources department provided Nwagbaraocha with a list of “core competencies” he was expected to exhibit, all of which he alleges were unknown to him at the time of his hiring: Emotional and social intelligence and awareness; provide non-judgmental support and comfort to staff; and the ability to de-escalate situations and address stress with a group.

The filing contends that Nwagbaraocha was not given the chance to respond to the hospital’s finding that he was not competent in these areas.

He was fired on Nov. 8, and given four reasons for his termination: Failure to develop clarity in communication, failure to develop skills as a spiritual care provider to an interdisciplinary team, failure to foster emotional self-awareness and failure to refrain from being defensive upon receipt of feedback.

A final performance review, of the same date, characterized his performance as “below” expectations, according to the suit.

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