Article Image
Douglas Kessel / Senior Staff Photographer

After cursing at his professor, former Columbia-Juilliard student Oren Ungerleider was involuntarily committed to St. Luke’s Hospital, where he was kept and medicated against his will, according to a lawsuit he filed against the University this month.

After cursing at a professor during a Spanish final, former Columbia-Juilliard student Oren Ungerleider was involuntarily committed to St. Luke's Hospital and kept there against his will for 30 days, according to a lawsuit he filed against the University this month.

On Jan. 17, Ungerleider filed suit in the southern district of New York federal court, claiming that Columbia and Continuum Health Partners—the organization that owns St. Luke's—falsely arrested and imprisoned him. The complaint also says that Continuum Health and four doctors involuntarily medicated him over the course of his hospitalization, which occurred in December 2010.

The claim names Columbia and current and former administrators as defendants, as well as Continuum and the St. Luke's doctors.

According to the complaint, Ungerleider became angry after Spanish professor Ruth Borgman gave him an unfairly low grade on a final project and called her a bitch in front of his class during the final exam. He emailed Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Hazel May to say he was sorry and explain that he was being unfairly graded, but she told him to see a psychologist, it says.

The complaint says that May directed Stephanie Nixon, then the director of residential programs, to visit Ungerleider's Wien dorm room. She did so at 12:30 in the morning, accompanied by campus security officers, who unlocked the door. When Ungerleider resisted, Nixon called the New York Police Department, and three officers handcuffed Ungerleider and escorted him to the hospital.

When he arrived at St. Luke's, Ungerleider was interviewed by a series of psychiatrists, and he refused to answer their questions, the complaint says. When he tried to leave, three doctors tackled him and forcibly injected him with the drug Haldol.

The lawsuit says that Dr. Tara Malekshahi met with Ungerleider and described him as having "grandiose and paranoid delusions" and an illogical and incoherent thought process. Malekshahi and other doctors medicated him against his will and kept him in containment, it says.

Although he asked to leave repeatedly over the course of his month-long hospitalization, he claims, Ungerleider was not allowed to. His twin brother, also a Columbia student, tried to check Oren out of the hospital, but doctors would not release him.

Ungerleider eventually requested a court date to challenge his hospitalization, but the appearance did not result in his release. Instead, he remained at St. Luke's until doctors released him on Jan. 21, 2011, the complaint says.

He took a year and a half away from school when Columbia refused to let him return, it states.

Ungerleider, now a student at The Ohio State University, declined to comment, as did Columbia and Continuum Health, and May. Nixon did not respond to request for comment.

"We want to get justice for Oren, we want to stop this happening to other people, and to get him compensated for the harm caused to him," Ungerleider's lawyer, Daniel Rubenstein, said.

The complaint describes the "mental anguish, emotional distress, public humiliation, and dangerous conditions" that Ungerleider experienced during and after his hospitalization. It also states that after this experience, Ungerleider "lost any desire to play the violin, which had been an important part of his life."

Prior to and during his time at Columbia, Ungerleider was a well-known classical musician. He played violin with professional orchestras and symphonies, toured internationally, and won various competitions, according to an article in the Wicked Local Sudbury, a paper in Ungerleider's hometown Boston suburb. A 2008 YouTube video shows Ungerleider playing a Debussy piano trio with his twin brother, who also attracted acclaim as a cellist.

Now, Ungerleider is studying computer and information science, according to the OSU directory. His brother continues to play music. In March 2011, his brother was quoted in an article in The Eye about the Columbia-Juilliard exchange. He recently performed in Juilliard's annual ChamberFest.

The lawsuit asks for $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages, but Rubenstein said it could take years before the case makes much progress. The defendants have not yet filed responses to Ungerleider's complaint.

It's at least the third lawsuit that a former student has brought against the University in the last six months. Two graduate students alleged in a lawsuit filed in January that the university retaliated against them when they accused professors of sexual harassment. And a Ph.D. student filed suit in September claiming he was fired from his position after he complained about being sexually harassed by his supervisor.

abby.abrams@columbiaspectator.com | @abby_abrams

St. Luke's Hospital lawsuit
ADVERTISEMENT
Newsletter