When Alberto Leguina arrived at Columbia from his native Chile last March to pursue his Ph.D., he expected to work hard, spend lots of money on expensive food, and maybe find rats or bugs in his New York apartment. Instead, in the span of three months, he said he found himself sexually harassed by his supervisor, shunned by a Columbia human resources officer, and fired from his dream job.
Leguina, 25, has filed a lawsuit against the University claiming that he was unfairly fired after he complained that he was sexually harassed by his supervisor, Qais Al-Awqati, a professor of medicine, nephrology and hypertension at the Medical Center.
Shortly after Leguina began working as a staff associate in the division of nephrology in the department of medicine, he said, Al-Awqati harassed him. Leguina reported the incident to his other supervisor, assistant professor of clinical medicine Rosemary Sampogna, who then directed him to human resources representative Mayra Marte-Miraz, director of operations for the department of medicine.
According to Leguina, Marte-Miraz said she would help him file a formal complaint with the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, which handles investigations against faculty and staff in cases of discrimination and harassment. Leguina said he never met with anyone from EOAA and that Sampogna turned hostile after he asked for further help.
Leguina continued working in the lab, but in June, Columbia fired him without notice or explanation, according to the lawsuit.
A Columbia spokesperson declined to comment, citing pending litigation. Al-Awqati deferred comment to the spokesperson, and Sampogna and Marte-Miraz did not respond to requests for comment.
In addition to granting Spectator an interview, Leguina provided extensive documentation of his story, including emails and text messages between himself and Marte-Miraz as well as with his supervisor in Chile.
Leguina’s story is the second Spectator has reported this year describing the University’s lack of response to sexual harassment complaints against its employees.
‘I was all by myself’
After his first few days at Columbia, Leguina had not seen much of Al-Awqati but was working well with Sampogna, his immediate supervisor. On March 9, Leguina received a message on Grindr, a smartphone application for gay and bisexual men looking to meet others, asking him if he “would date an older man,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on July 27.
Leguina, uninterested, said he ignored the message, and when it was followed by a picture of Al-Awqati, he figured it was a prank.
However, the response convinced him the message really was from the professor. “I have many guys as beautiful and as young as you,” Al-Awqati responded on Grindr, according to the lawsuit. “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.”
Leguina said he was confused—was this really one of the leading experts in hypertension? “Qais Al-Awqati was the one who I wanted to work with. He’s a reference for me,” he said. “It was my dream. I was doing what I wanted, I was working on what I wanted, with whom I really wanted to work.”
While Leguina did not have screenshots of the exchange, he said that he was working to get Grindr to provide them for trial.
As soon as Leguina rejected the advance, Al-Awqati, who was in the next room, stormed out and screamed “You are out!” Leguina said he began to cry and felt panicked, thinking he’d been fired.
Sampogna witnessed the incident, according to the lawsuit, and promised Leguina that she would help him retain his job and report the situation to the human resources department.
Leguina met with Marte-Miraz in HR on March 15. “She promised me that nothing was going to happen, that they were going to make an investigation,” Leguina said. “She said, ‘Don’t worry, I promise you your work is not going to be affected.’”
Only a few days later, Marte-Miraz 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.
Impossible work conditions
Near the end of March, Al-Aqwati apologized to Leguina for the sexual advance and gave him a MacBook, according to the lawsuit. Leguina asked Marte-Miraz about the gift, and was informed that this was Columbia’s standard practice. Leguina said no one ever asked him to sign any paperwork regarding the laptop and he was told it was his to take home.
Soon after, Al-Awqati cut off all communication, and Sampogna, who had previously been supportive of Leguina, suddenly turned cold, Leguina recounted. She avoided speaking to Leguina, instead emailing him short to-do lists with little explanation and yelling at him when anything went wrong. In one instance, Leguina said Sampogna even kicked a piece of furniture after he asked her for assistance.
“I kept working hard, doing all my stuff. I wanted to succeed, I wanted to make work, that’s what I wanted. I tried to not think about it,” Leguina said. “But in the moment everything was super aggressive and it was terrible. I was feeling so bad, I couldn’t sleep. I was shaking in the morning thinking about how I had to go to the lab, what was going to happen today.”
Leguina said these new working conditions made it almost impossible for him to do his job. On May 10, Leguina met with Marte-Miraz to seek help regarding the behavior he saw as retaliation for complaining about Al-Awqati’s sexual harassment.
According to the lawsuit, Marte-Miraz accused Leguina of posting bad things about Sampogna on his Facebook page. When Leguina provided Marte-Miraz with a printout of his Facebook page, which did not reference Sampogna, Marte-Miraz told him, “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.”
She also called him “too emotional” and told him he needed to deal with the situation in the “American way,” Leguina said.
“In that moment it went from bad to worse. I couldn’t believe the things I was hearing from human resources, that somebody was so disrespectful,” Leguina said.
Nowhere to turn
According to the lawsuit, Marte-Miraz told Leguina that he should meet with Sampogna in order to improve communication in the lab. Sampogna was not available, and so Leguina said he had to meet with Al-Awqati alone.
Al-Awqati allegedly told Leguina that he had poor work habits and was absent from work. When Leguina tried to refute the accusations and ask how he could improve, the professor interrupted and said he believed Leguina’s work was suffering “because he was in New York and this city is too excited for somebody coming from a small country.”
The lawsuit states that Al-Awqati then arranged weekly private meetings with Leguina, during which Leguina was required to present his work. At the first meeting, Al-Awqati told Leguina he was impressed with his skills and intelligence, but, later, he continued to express dissatisfaction with Leguina’s work.
“I don’t know where I [got] all that energy to do it,” Leguina said, referring to the weekly meetings. “But I think it was my desire to not waste this opportunity. I think about everything that I went through to just come here and do it.”
Leguina said the situation continued to cause him so much stress that he emailed his supervisor in Chile to ask for help. The lawsuit also claims that Leguina had to take prescription medicine to control his sleeping and depression.
The lawsuit states that Al-Awqati sent a “derogatory” email on March 17 to Leguina’s supervisor in Chile, Gloria Valdes, claiming that Leguina was “not performing at the level of a graduate student.”
Despite these criticisms, Leguina won an award for feature poster presentation at an annual meeting of the American Society of Hypertension on March 19.
The situation continued to deteriorate, and on June 8, Leguina received an email from his supervisors in Chile saying that, due to the feedback from Al-Awqati, he needed to leave his position at Columbia and return to Chile.
Leguina said that although Al-Awqati expressed concern upon seeing the Chilean supervisors’ response, he continue to criticize Leguina’s work. When Leguina brought up the sexual harassment, Al-Awqati became nervous and said, “It has nothing to do with that, but if you need to return to Chile, then just go.”
The lawsuit alleges that the University terminated Leguina’s employment on or around June 12, but Leguina said he never received any official notice. One day he tried to log into a computer using his UNI, and found his account deleted.
“If you think about it, he fired me the long way. He couldn’t fire me immediately because there was the sexual harassment complaint even though nobody filed it. He is very smart: He sent this bad report so the people in Chile would fire me,” Leguina said.
Columbia has not formally responded to the lawsuit, although a pretrial conference is set for Oct. 1, according to court records.
Leguina will return to Chile at the end of October because he cannot afford to live in New York without an income. He plans to resume his studies at Chile’s Pontifical Catholic University and get his Ph.D., but now he also has other plans for the future.
“I want to work as an activist and be part of that,” Leguina said. “I want the truth to be out. I want justice, I want to warn other people, I want to show that you can do this and survive this.”