Former DHMC Chaplain Sues Hospital, Alleging Discrimination in Termination

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    "I love that hospital, the people I worked with and the people I have served," said the Rev. John Nwagbaraocha, of Enfield, who was a chaplain at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center before being fired in November 2017. "Some of them still call me from time to time with their problems. I am still their priest. I still do what I have to do." Nwagbaraocha is contesting his termination. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A cross made of paint stirrers rests on a shelf in the living room of Father John Nwagbaraocha, in Enfield, N.H., Wednesday, April 25, 2018. 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 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — James M. Patterson

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    "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 2017. "It's also good to watch life grow." Since losing his job, Nwagbaraocha has been studying the possibility of keeping bees and raising sheep at his home in Enfield, N.H., working in his garden and leading masses in churches around the Upper Valley. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/27/2018 12:10:39 AM
Modified: 4/27/2018 12:31:46 PM

Concord — 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 D-H.

“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 on 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 D-H 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, D-H’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 D-H 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?”

Michael Carrese, a spokesman for the UVM Medical Center, confirmed in an email this week that Nwagbaraocha worked there from 2000 to 2014, but otherwise declined to comment on Nwagbaraocha’s time in Burlington.

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, D-H’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.

The firing “was a very big surprise,” Nwagbaraocha said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Though he was there to offer support to patients and their families during difficult times, Nwagbaraocha said, his employer failed to support him in addressing concerns about his performance.

“I don’t understand exactly what transpired,” he said.

The priest had hoped to spend the rest of his career at D-H, working until he was about 70, he said. The timing of his firing was particularly difficult as a young nephew in Nigeria died in December, just weeks after Nwagbaraocha lost his job, he said.

“It was really emotional for me,” he said.

Now, the Enfield resident is spending time in his garden and tending his chickens. He also is thinking about becoming trained to provide support to people struggling with addiction.

“My entire life, I’ve been ... helping people in difficult moments in their lives,” he said. “That has been my joy and pleasure and fulfillment.”

D-H published a story about Nwagbaraocha on its website in 2015, after DHMC held a special Catholic Mass to honor the priest’s 35 years of ordination.

Nwagbaraocha knew he wanted to be a priest from the age of 4, according to the story.

He credited a priest and a doctor he knew as a child as inspirations for his work as a hospital chaplain.

“For both, I liked the idea of helping and caring for people,” Nwagbaraocha is quoted as saying in the 2015 story. “There’s a saying, ‘No man is born into the world whose work is not born with him. There’s always work, and tools to work with.’ That’s where my ambition came from.”

In the 2015 story, Nwagbaraocha said he was happy to have landed at D-H, citing the hospital’s “welcoming spirit.”

Now, through the lawsuit, Nwagbaraocha said he hopes to prevent other people from facing similar discrimination and to clear his name.

“There should be some clarification on who I am and what I have been doing,” he said.

In the suit, he seeks to cover the cost of damages, legal fees and other relief as the court deems “just and equitable.”

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




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