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Darthmouth-Hitchcock denies chaplain’s firing was based on race, religion or age

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/19/2019 10:13:58 PM
Modified: 6/19/2019 10:13:50 PM

LEBANON — Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center denies that it terminated a Nigerian-born hospital chaplain for any reason other than his job performance and says he didn’t speak clearly and violated personal boundaries by encouraging hugging.

In court documents filed last month in U.S. District Court in Concord, D-H asked the judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Rev. John Nwagbaraocha, a Catholic priest in his 60s who lives in Enfield and was born in Abia State, Nigeria, who alleges that he was fired because of his race, his country of origin, his religion and his age.

“The record is clear: Plaintiff was terminated following a long history of performance issues, some of which were documented by Plaintiff’s former employer before he even began working at D-H,” Courtney Worcester, an attorney with the Boston-based Foley & Lardner that is representing D-H, wrote in the May 20 filing.

The “performance issues” D-H cites include a lack of clarity in Nwagbaraocha’s speech and writing, his tendency to “initiate and invite hugs” and complaints from D-H staff members about “judgmental” comments he made and his failure to listen appropriately to staff who were “emotionally distressed.” D-H also said that Nwagbaraocha’s previous employer had documented similar performance issues.

It was these things, the D-H filing asserts, that caused the Rev. Frank Macht, the director of D-H’s chaplaincy department who is also named in the suit, to give Nwagbaraocha negative performance reviews in the lead-up to his 2017 termination after more than three years of employment at the Lebanon hospital.

“Rev. Macht noted (in a 2017 performance evaluation of Nwagbaraocha) that in several meetings with Plaintiff and Human Resources over the past year, he had tried to explore ways for Plaintiff to recognize and evaluate the impact his actions had on others and what could be learned to avoid further problems, but Plaintiff did not demonstrate improvement,” according to the filing.

D-H disputes Nwagbaraocha’s allegation that Macht treated him differently by avoiding personal conversation and refusing to eat food Nwagbaraocha brought in to share because of his country of origin. Instead, D-H said that Macht ceased eating with his colleagues when he became director of the department in 2015.

“Not only do such examples fail to demonstrate any disparate treatment, they simply demonstrate a change in Rev. Macht’s demeanor toward those who were formerly his counterparts once he became Director, and thus, their supervisor,” the D-H filing said.

Though Nwagbaraocha, who was paid an annual salary of about $65,770 plus bonus pay for weekend shifts and time spent on call, alleges he was required to work more than the non-Catholic members of the department, the D-H court filing said Nwagbaraocha was on call more because Catholic priests are the only ones who can administer the last rites.

“There is no evidence suggesting Plaintiff was treated differently than the other Chaplains due to his membership in any protected class,” D-H said in the filing.

In addition, D-H said that Nwagbaraocha’s “defensive tendencies and personal boundaries with respect to hugging” were previously documented in evaluations by a supervisor at Fletcher Allen Medical Center, which is now the University of Vermont Medical Center, where Nwagbaraocha was employed from 2000 to 2014.

According to the D-H filing, Father Jack Crabb, one of Nwagbaraocha’s supervisors while he was in Burlington, wrote in a 2012/2013 evaluation that Nwagbaraocha “will benefit from becoming more aware of his mannerisms with individuals when he has disagreements or when others are in the same room with him ... I would further encourage John to let go of past hurts or the pattern of remembering only the negative experiences with staff of the department.”

Nwagbaraocha’s attorney Geoffrey Vitt, of Norwich, said in a Monday phone interview that his client brought solace to many of the people he worked with, though not all, which couldn’t be expected given the number of people Nwagbaraocha, who is also known as Father John, worked with and given the difficult circumstances under which people often seek support of a hospital chaplain.

“I’m not saying there were never situations where someone might not have been happy,” Vitt said. But, “Father John’s work performance, we say, was superb.”

Nwagbaraocha is currently employed as a relief chaplain, filling in at area churches where there is a need, Vitt said. He has not found full-time employment.

In his suit, Nwagbaraocha seeks compensation for his lost wages and other damages.

He is due to file a response to D-H’s request for summary judgment in mid-July.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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