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Former Psych Resident Sues DHMC, Alleges Discrimination

Lebanon — A discrimination lawsuit brought against Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center by a former psychiatry resident may be heading for jury trial.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions ruled that a jury in Burlington could decide the discrimination claim brought by former resident Jennifer Connors, of West Windsor, who says that DHMC did not accommodate her learning disability during the three years she worked there, according to court records. No trial date has been set.

Connors, who was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in 2003, worked at DHMC from 2006 until 2009, when she was fired because of performance issues, the lawsuit says. She went on to complete her residency at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and is now a practicing psychiatrist for Health Care Rehabilitation Services in Springfield, Vt., said her attorney, Norman Watts, of Woodstock. She also maintains a private practice in Woodstock.

It is at least the third active lawsuit involving a DHMC resident being fired from the hospital and the second alleging disability discrimination. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for them. Connors, however, is suing under the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act, which prohibits harassment of individuals because of their race, sex, age and a variety of other characteristics, including physical and mental conditions. Connors said not only was she discriminated against, but she was also subjected to illegal retaliation.

Connors, through her attorney, declined to comment. DHMC spokesman Rick Adams said the hospital could not comment on Connors’ allegations, but said the hospital was committed to fair employment practices.

“Dartmouth-Hitchcock takes its responsibility to train and educate new physicians very seriously, to ensure that the public’s and our patients’ best interests will be well served in the future,” Adams said in an email to the Valley News. “We also are committed to the fair and equal employment of people with disabilities. As an academic medical center, we do not comment on individual academic decisions, and out of respect for the judicial process and all parties involved, we will have no comment while that process is ongoing.”

The lawsuit says Connors’ disability made it difficult for her to organize her time and assignments and led her to be distracted. Further, it says the hospital did not make reasonable accommodations so that she could manage her symptoms while doing her job.

When she was hired, Connors told DHMC officials about her learning disability and the hospital agreed to make some adjustments, the lawsuit alleges. Specifically, she asked for extra time for testing, a quiet place to work and access to a psychiatrist.

In the months after she began, Connors had trouble completing paperwork, conflicted with staff and was chronically late, according to the facts outlined in the judge’s order. The problems continued through that winter during her rotation at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, where Connors said she was not allowed to leave the campus to get medication or undergo therapy. After being put on a six-month administrative leave in 2007, she agreed to follow a remediation plan that included clinical supervision and a faculty mentor aimed at helping her manage her responsibilities.

Her supervisors still had concerns. According to the judge’s order, Dr. Ronald Green, who was the psychiatry residency program director, felt that Connors had created enmity among the other residents and that her difficulties were caused by irresponsibility, not illness. Other concerns included that she had misdiagnosed a patient, forgotten to call a social service agency to report a child endangerment situation, and had conflicts with her supervisors.

She also had “unusual patient interactions, including an incident with a patient in which Dr. Connors began playing cards during a therapy session,” according to the judge’s order.

By January 2009, Connors was told that she was being dismissed from the program because of “irresponsible and unprofessional behavior.” Despite this, she was allowed to finish her rotations at DHMC and transferred to UVM’s medical school, where she completed her residency training. She later became a licensed psychiatrist in Vermont.

Besides DHMC, Connors’ lawsuit filed in 2010 also named Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic, Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital, Dartmouth College and the Geisel School of Medicine.

In his decision, Sessions dismissed the discrimination claims against Dartmouth College, the clinic and the Geisel School of Medicine because they were not Connors’ employers, though he left those against DHMC and Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital intact.

This is at least the second active disability discrimination case brought by a former DHMC resident against the hospital and the third involving someone alleging an unfair dismissal.

A former radiology resident, Christyna Faulkner, sued the hospital last December after complaining that she was fired over job performance issues related to her disability. Faulkner has severe and chronic insomnia and said that during her residency from 2008 to 2010, DHMC physicians forced her to be on overnight call shifts even though doing so worsened her condition, according to the lawsuit.

Thersia Knapik, who is also represented by Watts, was a resident in DHMC’s surgery department who was fired in June 2012 after she raised concerns about a colleague she believed was not acting ethically. She sued the hospital in August 2012.

Both cases are ongoing.

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.