A PhD student at Columbia University’s nephrology department has filed suit, claiming sexual advances from his supervisor—and subsequent hostility from the department and human-resources office—led to his being unfairly fired.
Alberto Leguina-Ruzzi, 25, arrived in New York from Chile this spring and began working under Dr. Qais Al-Awqati, a professor of medicine, nephrology and hypertension at Columbia’s Medical Center. On March 9, just eight days after he started at the university, Leguina (right) received a Grindr message from someone alleging to be Al-Awqati, asking if he “would date an older man.”
Assuming it was a prank, he ignored the message. But another, more threatening one, followed: “I have many guys as beautiful and as young as you… So it is not a joke,” it read. “You need to have better manners when in New York. Maybe in Argentina or Chile, you are a spoiled Mamma’s boy.”
According to the lawsuit, that made Leguina believe Al-Awqati had sent the message—apparently from the next room. After being rebuffed, the professor supposedly stormed out and screamed “You are out!”
Leguina was directed by assistant professor Rosemary Sampogna, who witnessed the outburst, to contact human resources. There, HR manager Mayra Marte-Miraz initially told him an investigation would be launched and that his position was not in jeopardy.
But Marte-Miraz sang a different tune a few days later. The Columbia Spectator reports:
[She] allegedly told Leguina to “deal with this matter as a big man” and that he “must pretend nothing happened.” She threatened to send Leguina back to Chile if he hired a lawyer and told him he could not contact any authorities in Chile regarding the situation, according to Leguina.
“I agreed. In that moment I was scared, I was all by myself. I said, OK, I trust human resources. I said, maybe this is how you do it. I just want to work,” Leguina said.
During the meeting, Leguina also said Marte-Miraz said to him that if Al-Awqati was “young and sexy” Leguina would “not have said no to the sexual advance.”
Leguina responded that her comment seemed “very inappropriate for a human resources director to say,” but she shrugged him off, he said. He asked Marte-Miraz again about filing a formal complaint with EOAA and she said she was busy, giving him several excuses.
The following months were a roller-coaster ride: First Leguina’s amorous supervisor apologized for the overture and gave him a MacBook, though he wasn’t asked to sign for it or ever return it. Then Al-Aqwati and Sampogna both froze the grad student out: “I kept working hard, doing all my stuff… But in the moment everything was super aggressive and it was terrible,” Legiuna tells the Spectator. Things got so bad he had trouble sleeping and developed depression. “I was shaking in the morning thinking about how I had to go to the lab, what was going to happen today,” he says.
Leguina met again with Marte-Miraz, who told him the problem was that he was overwhelmed by the big city: “Your mind is clouded and your stress is simply because you are from a small country and this is New York. You just need to learn.”
Al-Awqati (left) who initially complimented Leguina’s skills, began complaining he had bad work habits and was frequently absent. (Leguina refutes these allegations, pointing to an award her won on March 19.)
Then, in early June, Leguina received an email from his supervisors in Chile saying that due to negative feedback from Al-Awqati he needed to leave his position and return home.
Leguina says that, though he was terminated on or about June 12, he was never given an formal notification: “[Al-Awqati] couldn’t fire me immediately because there was the sexual-harassment complaint, even though nobody filed it… He sent this bad report so the people in Chile would fire me,” Leguina said.
Columbia has yet to make a statement about the charges, for which Leguina is requesting unspecified monetary damages. He says he has evidence to back his claims, and is working with Grindr to retrieve a copy of the texts Al-Awqati sent him.
And while he still wants to pursue medicine, the experience has turned Leguina into something of an workplace activist: “You cannot let these [things] happen anymore,” he told The Washington Blade. I know I’m not the first person, but I hope I can be the last.”