Doctor claims Lewiston hospital discriminated against her

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A Portland woman who worked as a doctor at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston claims the hospital discriminated against her because of her medical disability.

The hospital said the doctor, Ingrid Carlson, resigned from her position during a medical leave of absence and that the hospital had reasonably accommodated her disability.

An investigator at the Maine Human Rights Commission concluded that Carlson had “reasonable grounds” for believing the hospital had discriminated against her because of her physical disability by denying her the opportunity to resume her full-time job as an obstetrician and gynecologist based on “unfounded concerns” that her chronic medical condition might flare up and hinder her ability to perform her job sometime in the future.

In the fall of 2009, Carlson had a “flare-up” of Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, while working at CMMC as a staff OB/GYN doctor. She had been working at the hospital since September 2003.

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In early 2010, Carlson and her doctor concluded her condition was made worse by staying up all night. She asked the hospital management in March 2010 to be relieved on a temporary basis of the overnight call shift, a duty shared by all of the hospital’s OB/GYN staff doctors, she told Maine Human Rights Commission investigator Michele Dion. Carlson was able to perform all other duties associated with her job, she said.

After a meeting with the hospital’s president, Carlson said she was assured her request would be accommodated. She said she told the president she would be agreeable to moving into a different full-time position in the hospital if they would prefer.

Other doctors in the OB/GYN group told Carlson they would rather she took a different position if she couldn’t perform overnight shifts. She told the president.

After returning from an April 2010 vacation, Carlson said she discovered she had no scheduled patients beginning in July, which was unusual. Her patients were telling her they learned she was leaving and they would have to find a new doctor.

Later in April, Carlson said the hospital’s executives told her she could work 10-15 hours a week reading ultrasounds, starting in July. They encouraged her to apply for long-term disability benefits, she said.

“This is a completely different message than what I received” at the March meeting with the president, she told Dion.

In May, she got a letter repeating the offer of 10-15 hours a week of work at the hospital.

In mid-May, the president told Carlson he was “not open to” her continuing working as an OB/GYN on staff or taking a medical leave then returning to that job “because of the possibility that I could experience more flare-ups of Crohn’s disease, which he said could be disruptive to patients,” Carlson said.

After that, her name was removed from the hospital’s list of practicing doctors, she said.

She was put on medical leave in July, despite her wish to continue working, she said, with the caveat that she be relieved of overnight duties for a limited time.

At the end of July, she sent a letter to the hospital’s president to say she had “no choice but to resign my position” in order to find another job, rather than staying on unpaid medical leave of absence, she said. In August, the president accepted her resignation.

The hospital holds a different view of events that led to Carlson’s resignation.

Carlson’s contract required that she share in the overnight on-call shift rotation, the hospital said. In October 2009, she asked for and was granted a five-week medical leave due to a flare-up of Crohn’s disease. In November 2009, she returned to work but asked for a reduction in her work schedule to four days a week while continuing overnight on-call shifts. The hospital agreed.

In February 2010, she told hospital management that she didn’t feel she could continue overnight on-call shifts starting the end of March due to her medical condition. She wrote to management saying she had met with the other doctors in the group who felt they had to have another doctor with whom to share the overnight on-call shifts.

Starting March 22, the hospital agreed to take Carlson off the overnight on-call list with the understanding that she would leave her job at the end of June.

Management told Carlson that the only position for which she’d be qualified would be a new, part-time job performing ultrasounds starting in July. In an April letter to the management, Carlson said the part-time job wouldn’t work and she questioned her termination at the end of June, the hospital said.

A month later, the hospital wrote her to say the OB/GYN job required overnight on-call shifts. She was offered the ultrasound job with up to 20 hours a week. Carlson wrote back to say she was surprised she was being let go as an OB/GYN at the end of June. She attached a letter from her doctor who said she should avoid overnight calls for up to six months, at which time he would re-evaluate her condition. Her letter asked for accommodation of her disability by eliminating overnight shifts for the next five to six months and/or that she be given a medical leave of absence for that period.

The hospital said it sent her a letter that offered her options, including a medical leave of absence, a transfer to any open position for which she was qualified or the new part-time job doing ultrasounds.

At the same time, Carlson’s attorney sent the hospital a letter asking for a reasonable accommodation for her medical condition that repeated Carlson’s earlier request.

The hospital gave Carlson a six-month leave of absence. In July, Carlson’s attorney wrote to say she didn’t believe the hospital planned to reinstate her as an OB/GYN at the end of her leave of absence. She offered to resign in exchange for six months of severance pay, the hospital said. In response, the hospital wrote that it hadn’t sought her resignation and intended to continue her employment if she were able to resume her OB/GYN duties once her leave ended. Carlson wrote at the end of July that she had gotten another job starting at the beginning of September.

An investigation by the Maine Human Rights Commission showed Carlson had inadvertently seen a group email in April 2010 to hospital staff about the “first candidate” to take her place in the OB/GYN group, which signaled to her that the hospital planned to replace her.

Her new job was in Georgia and she had to sell her home in Maine at a loss in order to move, the investigator wrote in the report. She also would take a pay cut.

The hospital said it hadn’t hired a replacement before Carlson’s leave of absence was expected to end. It was not until August 2011.

The Maine Human Rights Commission board is scheduled to meet on March 5 to vote on the investigator’s recommendation.

If the board supports the investigator’s recommendation, an out-of-court agreement is encouraged. If the two sides are unable to agree, the board would look to the legal department to recommend whether to take legal action before taking a final vote.

cwilliams@sunjournal.com

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