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Fired Resident Claims DHMC Didn’t Accommodate Disability

Lebanon — A former medical resident at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is suing the hospital and four physicians over allegations that DHMC did not sufficiently accommodate her disability during her training.

The former radiology resident, Christyna Faulkner, is the second resident in the past year to sue the hospital over allegations of being improperly fired.

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.

As a result, Faulkner’s ability to perform her job was affected and she was ultimately fired, according to the lawsuit. Faulkner is arguing that DHMC’s failure to accommodate her condition violated the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Faulkner also says DHMC disclosed information to other residency programs that has made it difficult for her to find a position elsewhere, and that she was harassed by her colleagues.

Since leaving DHMC in 2010, Faulkner has been living in her home state of New York, where she has been working as a clerk at a Whole Foods Market, according to her attorney, George “Skip” Campbell, of The Stein Law Firm in Concord.

Losing her position , Campbell said, has hurt Faulkner’s career prospects.

“By getting terminated from this residency, especially one as prestigious as Dartmouth, she became unable to find another residency that would take her,” Campbell said in an interview.

Faulkner was put into this position by a “macho idea” in hospitals that residents must work round-the-clock hours on little or no sleep, “and if she can’t toe that line, then she can’t be part of our club,” Campbell said.

DHMC declined to comment on the case because it involves ongoing litigation, but issued a general statement that reinforced its commitment to medical education.

“Education is part of our core mission at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and we take our responsibility to train and educate physicians very seriously, to ensure that our patients’ and the public’s best interests will be well-served in the future,” said DHMC spokesman Rick Adams in an email.

After she was dismissed, Faulkner filed a charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleged discrimination due to her race (she is African American) and disability. The commission determined last August that “there is reasonable cause to believe that (DHMC) has discriminated against (Faulkner) by failing to keep her medical information confidential as required by the ADA.” Faulkner filed her lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Hampshire last December.

In its response to the lawsuit, DHMC said the allegations of ADA violations against the four physicians should be dismissed because the ADA holds employers, not individuals, liable. The hospital also has argued that Faulkner’s claims of emotional distress and wrongful discharge over her firing should be dismissed.

Faulkner, 35, who now lives in Mount Vernon, N.Y., began her residency in DHMC’s radiology department in July 2008 and worked there about eight months before she approached Joceyln Chertoff, the associate program director for the radiology residency program, about how taking overnight calls was affecting her insomnia, according to the lawsuit. Faulkner turned to the section chief of sleep medicine at Dartmouth, Michael Sateia, who recommended that Faulkner not be assigned to work overnight call. The hospital made temporary accommodations for Faulkner, but by July, she was back on overnight calls.

After several months, Faulkner’s condition worsened and she was again taken off overnight duty. She did a rotation that winter at Children’s Hospital Boston and received high marks, according to the lawsuit. Then, when she returned to DHMC in March, hospital officials agreed to take her off overnight call until June 2010. But, when that time rolled around , Faulkner’s health had deteriorated once again and she took medical leave until September.

Days before she was scheduled to return, however, Faulkner was called into a meeting with the physicians in charge of the radiology residency program, during which they told Faulkner that she was going to withdraw from the program, according to the lawsuit.

Faulkner applied to other residency programs, but the letters of reference she received from DHMC physicians might have undercut her efforts, according to the lawsuit.

In a letter of reference to a program in New York, Chertoff wrote that Faulkner “had medical issues that had a significant impact on her performance, and on her satisfaction with our department, despite what we thought was appropriate accommodation,” according to the lawsuit. Also, the director of the radiology residency program, Anne Silas, was “critical of (Faulkner’s) performance in the ... residency program, and referenced a leave of absence taken by (Faulkner), and from which (she) had not returned.”

Silas and Chertoff are both defendants in the lawsuit, as are radiology department chairman Peter Spiegel and Marc Bertrand, associate dean for graduate medical education at the Geisel School of Medicine.

Faulkner has accused hospital officials of defaming her because of what was written in the letters of reference, and also for conversations they allegedly had with directors at other residency programs, in which they told the directors about Faulkner’s lawsuit. The lawsuit also claims that DHMC officials violated her “right and ability to take leave without harassment or retaliation.”

DHMC has not yet responded in court to those claims.

This is the second lawsuit brought against DHMC in the past year that has involved a resident’s dismissal.

Thersia Knapik was a resident in DHMC’s surgery department who was fired last June after she raised concerns about a colleague who she believed was not acting ethically.

Knapik’s lawsuit alleges that the colleague, a fellow resident, had been effectively put on probation over concerns that Dartmouth faculty had about the resident’s performance. Yet the resident, who was not named in the lawsuit, did not tell this to a fellowship program to which she had applied.

DHMC fired Knapik after she sent this information — by way of a letter that DHMC called a “privileged quality assurance document” — to the fellowship program and to the corresponding state’s licensing authority. DHMC said Knapik sent the letter anonymously and without permission. Knapik said she was motivated by her own professional ethics.

The case is ongoing.

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