A gay Chilean doctoral student claims in a lawsuit against Columbia University that he was unfairly fired from his job after complaining that a supervisor sexually harassed him.
Alberto Leguina Ruzzi, 25, alleges that Dr. Qais Al-Awqati, a professor at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons sent him a picture of himself from Grindr on March 9, eight days after he began working at Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan. He claims that Al-Awqati asked him whether “he would date an older man.” Leguina said that he rejected his advances.
“I have many guys as beautiful and as young as you,” responded Al-Awqati to Leguina, according to the lawsuit his lawyer filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on July 27. “So it is not a joke. You need to have better manners when in New York. Maybe in Argentina or Chile, you are a spoiled Mamma’s boy.”
“It was an awkward situation because it was my first week,” Leguina, a PhD candidate in biology at Chile’s Catholic University, told the Blade from New York City. He said that he specifically asked to work directly with Al-Awqati when he applied for a grant to come to Columbia. “I never thought someone I admired like Al-Awqati would do this.”
Immediately after he said he declined the proposition, Leguina said that Al-Awqati came out of his office and screamed “You are out!” He said he suffered what he described as a panic attack and began to cry because he thought he had been fired. The lawsuit claims that Leguina’s other direct supervisor, Rosemary Sampogna, witnessed the incident and assured him that she would work to ensure that he kept his job. Leguina further claims that she said she would report the incident to the hospital’s Department of Human Resources.
The lawsuit states that Leguina discussed it with Mayra Marte-Miraz, director of operations for Columbia’s Department of Medicine, on March 15. Leguina claims that she told him that he “needed to continue working as if nothing happened.” He further alleges Marte-Miraz told him four days later that he needed to “deal with this matter as a big man” and he “must pretend that nothing happened.”
Marte-Miraz allegedly told Leguina that he would have not declined Al-Awqati’s advances if he was “young and pretty.” The lawsuit states that she further threatened to send him back to Chile if he discussed the incident with an attorney, his Chilean supervisors or any other officials in the South American country.
Leguina claims that Al-Awqati subsequently apologized and gave him a Mac Book computer. The lawsuit further alleges that he told him to “pretend that nothing happened.” Leguina said he told Marte-Miraz that Al-Awqati had apologized to him and he said she assured him that she would perform what she described as a full investigation into the alleged incident.
Following that meeting; Leguina said that Sampogna, whom he said had previously praised his work, began to call him “useless.” The lawsuit notes that she told him he was “incapable of troubleshooting” and “incapable of doing his job.” And it further alleges that Sampogna kicked furniture, used profanity and abruptly dropped his research material when Leguina asked her for help.
Leguina further alleges that both she and Al-Awqati made his job “virtually impossible.”
Marte-Miraz accused Leguina during a May 10 meeting of posting derogatory messages about Sampogna on his Facebook page, according to the lawsuit. Leguina said he provided her with a copy of his Facebook transcript that he claims disputed her allegations.
“Your mind is clouded and your stress is simply because you are from a small country and this is New York and you just need to learn,” responded Marte-Miraz, according to the lawsuit.
Leguina said Marte-Miraz suggested that he meet with Sampogna to discuss ways that he could improve his work — she was unavailable, so he said he was forced to meet with Al-Awqati himself. The lawsuit claims that he told Leguina that, among other things, he had a poor work ethic and had been absent. It notes that Al-Awqati had private weekly meetings with Leguina, during which he was required to show his work and provide a report. The lawsuit further claims that Al-Awqati “awkwardly expressed how impressed he was” with Leguina’s “skills and intelligence” during these meetings.
Leguina alleges that he was forced to take prescription medications to help him cope with the stress, anxiety and insomnia he said he was experiencing. He said also e-mailed one of his Chilean supervisors to discuss the situation with him.
Al-Awqati allegedly sent her a “derogatory e-mail” that criticized his performance. In spite of these claims, Leguina received an award and positive comments about his Columbia work during the American Society of Hypertension’s annual meeting.
Leguina said his Chilean supervisors told him on June 8 that he had to step down and return to Chile based on Al-Awqati’s feedback. The lawsuit claims that Al-Awqati initially questioned the decision in follow-up e-mail to Leguina, but again criticized his work in a follow-up meeting. It further alleges that Al-Awqati “suddenly got very nervous” when Leguina raised his sexual advances and subsequent retaliation with him.
“It has nothing to do with that, but if you need to return to Chile, then just go,” said Al-Awqati, according to the lawsuit.
Leguina was fired on June 12.
“Maybe I was ready to deal with rats in my apartment or New York stuff, but not sexual harassment,” Leguina told the Blade. “I knew I couldn’t just let this go. I couldn’t just leave.”
Columbia has yet to formally respond to the lawsuit, and declined to comment on the allegations. Leguina, who seeks unspecified monetary damages, said he hopes his decision to come forward sends a message to those who suffer sexual harassment in the workplace.
“It’s about some kind of awareness,” he said. “You cannot let these [things] happen anymore. I know I’m not the first person, but I hope I can be the last person.”