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Connors v. Dartmouth Hitchcock Med. Ctr.

United States District Court, D. Vermont

April 2, 2014

JENNIFER A. CONNORS, Plaintiff,
v.
DARTMOUTH HITCHCOCK MEDICAL CENTER, MARY HITCHOCK MEMORIAL HOSPITAL, Defendants

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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For Jennifer A. Connors (2:10-cv-00094-wks), Plaintiff: Norman E. Watts, Jr., Watts Law Firm, PC, Woodstock, VT.

For Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (2:10-cv-00094-wks), Defendants: Edward M. Kaplan, Esq., William D. Pandolph, Sulloway & Hollis, P.L.L.C., Concord, NH.

For Jennifer A. Connors (2:12-cv-00051-wks), Plaintiff: Norman E. Watts, Jr., Watts Law Firm, PC, Woodstock, VT.

For Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, Dartmouth Medical School, Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic, Trustees of Dartmouth College (2:12-cv-00051-wks), Defendants: Edward M. Kaplan, Esq., William D. Pandolph, Sulloway & Hollis, P.L.L.C., Concord, NH.

OPINION

William K. Sessions III, District Court Judge.

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RULING ON MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW

Defendants Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital have moved for judgment as a matter of law on all of Plaintiff's claims, pursuant to Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Defendants claim that Plaintiff has not demonstrated that she is entitled to damages, compensatory or punitive, nor has she presented evidence to support her claims of (1) disability discrimination under the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act (" VFEPA" ); (2) illegal retaliation under the VFEPA; (3) breach of an implied contract; and (4) breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion is granted, and the suit is dismissed.

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I. Background

In April 2005, Plaintiff Dr. Jennifer Connors and Defendants Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital (" MHMH" ) of the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (" DHMC" ) entered into a Resident/Fellow Agreement of Appointment for graduate training as a psychiatry resident from June 26, 2006, through June 25, 2007.[1] The Agreement provided that reappointment would be " dependent upon satisfactory evaluations [by the program director and/or departmental chair] and fulfillment of program and institutional requirements." Pl.'s Ex. 14. It further stated that " [i]n the event that it is determined by Responsible Person(s) that renewal of this Agreement for a subsequent year of residency/fellowship will not be made," written notice would be provided. Id.

Around the time of her appointment, Dr. Connors notified the psychiatry residency program director, Dr. Ronald Green, that she had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (" ADHD" ) for which she required additional time for testing. DHMC agreed to provide this accommodation. Dr. Connors did not assert at trial that this accommodation was not provided to her. Shortly after Dr. Connors began at DHMC, her supervisors helped her find a psychiatrist at Dartmouth Hitchcock, Dr. Sateia, so that she could conveniently obtain prescriptions for her ADHD medication.

In early 2007, Dr. Connors was assigned to an inpatient psychiatry rotation at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (" VAMC" ) in White River Junction, Vermont. Dr. Connors testified that during this time, her supervisor did not allow her to leave the VAMC campus early to acquire medication.

Dr. Connors was placed on administrative leave in early March 2007 by Dr. Green following complaints regarding her performance. These complaints included that she was not filing her notes on time and an incident during which she signed off on a physical examination that she had not completed. She returned from leave in September 2007, after agreeing to a remediation plan. The remediation plan accorded her release from her clinical duties one afternoon per week to allow her to meet with her health care providers. Dr. Connors received her regular stipend and benefits under her contract throughout the duration of her administrative leave.

Dr. Connors and MHMH then entered into a Resident/Fellow Agreement of Appointment for graduate training as a psychiatry resident at the PGY-2 [2] level from September 17, 2007, through January 6, 2008. This Agreement was substantively the same as the prior agreement, other than a slightly increased stipend and the incorporation of the remediation plan. Dr. Connors successfully completed a remediation period at New Hampshire Hospital. Following the completion of the remediation period, Dr. Connors and MHMH entered into a Resident/Fellow Agreement of Appointment for graduate training as a psychiatry resident at the PGY-3 level, from January 7, 2008, through January 6, 2009.

For her PGY-3 year, Dr. Connors was again assigned to the VAMC two days per

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week,[3] where she avers she was not granted reasonable accommodations for her disability. Her chief complaint during this time is that she was not given an office in which to complete her notes, and instead was assigned to a kitchenette area that housed a coffee pot, subjecting her to distractions. Dr. Connors was given an office at VAMC in May 2008, as soon as she began seeing patients. It is undisputed that Dr. Lambert, the residency director at the VAMC, was not notified of Dr. Connors's disability until well after Dr. Connors left the VAMC. During Dr. Connors's PGY-3 rotation at the VAMC, Dr. Lambert received frequent complaints from Dr. Connors's other supervisors about her behavior and conduct, some of which Dr. Lambert raised directly with Dr. Connors.

On November 20, 2008, Dr. Green and Dr. Watts, the associate director of the psychiatry residency program, met with Dr. Connors to discuss the concerns of her supervisors, including her failure to call a social service agency to report a child endangerment situation; misdiagnosing a patient and failing to discuss the diagnosis during supervision; disputing her supervisors' recommendations; lack of receptiveness to feedback; lateness submitting clinical notes; and unusual patient interactions. VAMC faculty members were concerned that emotional or mental illness might be causing her behavior and asked Dr. Connors to undergo a fitness for duty evaluation, which revealed no ill health.

On January 28, 2009, Dr. Connors had another meeting with Dr. Green, during which Dr. Green notified Dr. Connors that she would not be renewed for her PGY-4 year of residency. Dr. Connors's last training day took place April 12, and her stipend continued through June 30, 2009. Dr. Connors left the program on April 12 having completed her PGY-3 training requirements. On April 14, she requested a Fair Hearing pursuant to DHMC's Policy & Procedure Manual for Residents and Fellows (" Red Book" ). The Fair Hearing took place on June 1 and June 16, 2009. On July 27, 2009, the Fair Hearing Committee concluded in a written decision that Dr. Green's decision not to renew Dr. Connors for her PGY-4 should stand.

Dr. Connors was permitted to complete the PGY-3 rotations she needed to be eligible for a PGY-4 year elsewhere, and was supplied with a recommendation to another institution to complete her residency training. Dr. Connors completed her residency training at another institution and received her medical license in Vermont, where she is currently a practicing psychiatrist.

After pre-trial dispositive motions, Dr. Connors had four surviving claims against Defendants: disability discrimination under the VFEPA (Count I); illegal retaliation under the VFEPA (Count II); breach of an implied contract (Count III); and breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (Count IV). Dr. Connors also sought punitive damages. The parties commenced a jury trial on March 26, 2014. At the close of ...


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