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Altru Health denies discriminating against Scientologist

GRAND FORKS — Altru Health System said it did not discriminate against a Scientologist doctor while he worked there, denying any claims it forced him to resign.

In a court document filed last month in federal court, the Grand Forks health care provider denied any wrongdoing and allegations by Dr. Ralph Highshaw, who claims in a lawsuit Altru “engaged in unlawful employment practices,” violated his civil rights, created a hostile work environment and retaliated against him because of his religion.

“Altru affirmatively states that (Highshaw’s) resignation from his employment at Altru was voluntary and (was not) a coerced termination or a consequence of retaliation,” the hospital said in its answer to the doctor’s lawsuit complaint.

Highshaw, who worked for Altru as a urologist from 2013 to 2016, filed a federal lawsuit in November, alleging the hospital scrutinized his skills as a doctor, limited the number of patients he would see and attempted to force him to participate in a program that would violate his religious beliefs. If he didn’t complete the program, Altru allegedly said it would terminate his employment, according to the lawsuit complaint.

Highshaw said he resigned because of the alleged threat, but Altru denied those allegations.

The lawsuit stems from allegations aimed at Dr. Eric Leichter, who oversaw Highshaw’s schedule. The complaint alleged Leichter screamed at Highshaw during a surgery in 2014 when Highshaw said he was taking vacation time to go to Clearwater, Fla., for a spiritual retreat.

Leichter “immediately stopped operating and screamed, ‘Clearwater? What the f---! You’re a Scientologist?!?’” the complaint alleged.

Highshaw said he was welcomed and respected at Altru before Leichter found out he was a Scientologist, but attitudes toward him at the hospital changed after that.

The North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights ruled it could not find evidence Altru discriminated against Highshaw or created a hostile work environment because of his religion. In its response to the Labor Department, Altru claimed Highshaw had “poor organizational skills,” showed up late for surgery, was difficult to work with, had patient complaints, made medical errors and used “nonstandard and sometimes questionable surgery techniques.”

“As a direct and proximate result of (Altru’s) conduct, (Highshaw) 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 hospital said in its court document damages caused to Highshaw were the result of “events, conditions, or circumstances beyond Altru’s control, for which Altru is not legally liable.”

Leichter, who began working in April at Avera St. Luke’s Hospital in Aberdeen, S.D., is not a defendant in the lawsuit. His attorney, Gregory Myers of Minneapolis, said his client denies all allegations Highshaw has made against Leichter.

Attorneys for Highshaw, who is a urologist in Florida, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.