Dec 6, 2018

Scientologist sues Altru Health, claims hospital discriminated against his religion

April Baumgarten
Forum News Service
December 2, 2018

GRAND FORKS — A former Altru Health System doctor is suing the Grand Forks hospital, claiming it discriminated against him because he practices Scientology.

Dr. Ralph Highshaw, a urologist in Florida, filed the complaint Nov. 20 in the U.S. District Court of North Dakota. Highshaw, who worked for Altru as a urologist from 2013 to 2016, said the hospital “engaged in unlawful employment practices,” violated his civil rights, created a hostile work environment, retaliated against him and forced him to resign because of his religion, according to the lawsuit.

“As a direct and proximate result of the defendant’s conduct, plaintiff has suffered and continues to suffer emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, pain and suffering, loss of wages and benefits, and other serious damages,” the lawsuit claims.

The federal lawsuit comes after the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights ruled in late August it could not find evidence Altru discriminated against Highshaw or created a hostile work environment based on his religion, according to department documents. Highshaw filed the claim in January 2017.

Altru denied any discrimination against Highshaw based on religion, according to the Labor Department’s report. Aside from one doctor, Altru said the administration didn’t know Highshaw was a Scientologist until after he resigned, the report said.

“The concern that Altru Health System had with Dr. Highshaw was with his performance and not with his religious beliefs,” Altru said in its response to the allegations in the Labor Department report.

Highshaw’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

‘You’re a Scientologist?!?’

When Highshaw began working for Altru, doctors and staff welcomed and praised him for his work, according to court documents.

In the summer of 2014, Dr. Eric Leichter, who oversaw Highshaw’s schedule, asked during surgery where he was going on vacation. Highshaw responded Clearwater, Fla., for a spiritual retreat.

Clearwater is the headquarters for the Church of Scientology.

Leichter “immediately stopped operating and screamed, ‘Clearwater? ... You’re a Scientologist?!?’ He then grew red in the face, gritted his teeth, and began pacing,” according to court documents.

In August 2014, Highshaw was put on a five-month review in part because of complications for surgeries, according to the lawsuit and the Labor Department’s findings. The complaint called the review “out of the blue,” with Highshaw saying complications “did not consistently rise to peer reviews at Altru,” the complaint said.

Altru told the Labor Department Highshaw had “poor organizational skills,” showed up late for surgery, had difficulty working with others, had patient complaints, made medical errors and “use of nonstandard and sometimes questionable surgery techniques.”

Highshaw later experienced additional scrutiny of his skills beginning in July 2015, the complaint said. The number of patients he would see in a day was cut in early 2016, and he was put on administrative leave later that year.

Highsaw was told he would need to participate in a behavioral health program for “workplace consulting services,” the complaint said. Altru threatened to terminate Highshaw’s employment if he did not attend, but he determined going through the program would violate his religious beliefs, the complaint said.

Highshaw resigned shortly after.

Highshaw also claimed in the complaint Altru refused this year to provide needed forms when he applied for a medical license in Texas but instead sent responses with “slanderous statements without context.” Altru told the Labor Department it completed the information needed in Texas.

As of Thursday, Altru had not filed a response to Highshaw’s complaint in federal court.

No comments: