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.
The Herald attempted to contact Highshaw’s attorneys seeking comment for this story, but they did not respond by press time.
‘You’re a Scientologist?!?’
When Highshaw began working for Altru, doctors and staff welcomed and praised him for his work, according to allegations in Dr. Highshaw’s lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, 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? What the f---! You’re a Scientologist?!?’ He then grew red in the face, gritted his teeth, and began pacing,” according to Highshaw’s lawsuit.
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. One doctor asked him if he was worried going to a Scientology retreat March 2016 would affect his contract negotiations, and a nurse also told him everyone knew he was attending the retreat, the lawsuit said.
A former chief medical officer at Altru expressed concerns about complaints against Highshaw, but his contract was renewed for $650,000 a year in January 2016, the complaint said.
In February 2016, Highshaw was told Altru would cut the number of patients he would see in a day, with doctors citing previous complaints, the lawsuit said. During the 2016 retreat, Highshaw was told he was being put on administrative leave because of a complication and he would need to participate in a program at Vital WorkLife Inc., a national behavioral health consulting firm, 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.
Altru also said there was a pending claim brought by a patient against him, but it did not give specifics of the claim, according to the lawsuit.
The family of David Karas filed a malpractice lawsuit in Grand Forks District Court against Altru and Highshaw. The doctor performed a procedure in July 2015 on Karas, who died several days after the surgery. The complaint alleged Altru and Highshaw were negligent in the medical treatment, which the defendants denied.
The case was dismissed Monday after Altru, Highshaw and Karas’ family reached a settlement outside court. Peter Schmit, a Minneapolis attorney representing the Karas family, said the terms of the settlement are confidential.
Altru declined to comment on the case, citing patient privacy. The hospital told the Labor Department Highshaw had not been cooperative in helping the defense of the case.
“Prior to Dr. Highshaw resigning from Altru Health System, there were serious concerns in regard to his behavior, professional quality of work and patient safety,” the hospital said in the Labor Department’s findings, adding the dismissed lawsuit was “an outcome of the concerns (Altru) had and was attempting to provide Dr. Highshaw assistance to avoid.”
As of Thursday, Altru had not filed a response to Highshaw’s complaint in federal court.
Leichter, who began working in April at Avera St. Luke’s Hospital in Aberdeen, S.D., was unavailable for comment. When asked why Leichter left Altru, hospital spokeswoman Angie Laxdal said, “Other than in the event of a retirement, we do not comment on why people leave Altru.”
Highshaw’s were not the only claims of religious discrimination against Altru in recent years. Dr. Qasim Durrani claimed in a Labor Department complaint filed in January the hospital did not treat foreign-born and Muslim employees as well as American and Christian staff.
Durrani, a Muslim who was an internist for Altru, claimed requests for a prayer room were ignored for several months, that he was told not to speak his native language and a colleague said they'd "get some pops or milk for you kids" when doctors were going to a meeting where alcohol was to be served.
The claim filed in January 2017 was dismissed in December 2017 after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dismissed a similar charge made by Durrani, according to a letter obtained by the Herald through an open records request.
Durrani works as a neurocritical care specialist with Sanford Medical Center in Fargo. He had not filed any lawsuits in North Dakota or federal court as of Wednesday.
Editor’s note: This story was amended on Dec. 12 to clarify attribution of allegations.