Columbia PhD Student: ’I Was Fired For Rejecting Boss’ Grindr Advances’
A Columbia PhD student from Chile claims he was wrongfully fired from the school’s nephrology department after he complained to human resources that his superior was sexually harassing him on Grindr, the Columbia Spectator reported.
Alberto Leguina, 25, has filed a lawsuit against the school, a prestigious Ivy League institution located in New York City. Leguina alleges that he was let go from his dream job in the university’s nephrology department because he turned down sexual advances his supervisor Qais Al-Awqati, a professor of medicine, nephrology and hypertension, made on the gay hookup app Grindr.
On March 9, Legunia said, he received a message from Al-Awqati on the app. According to the lawsuit, his boss allegedly asked him if he "would date an older man."
Legunia didn’t respond because he was uninterested. What came next shocked the student: a photo of Al-Awqati. At first, Legunia thought someone was playing a prank on him; but he soon believed it really was his boss who was sending the inappropriate text.
"I have many guys as beautiful and as young as you," Al-Awqati said 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."
Legunia said he was very confused by the incident.
"Qais Al-Awqati was the one who I wanted to work with. He’s a reference for me," he told the Spectator. "It was my dream. I was doing what I wanted, I was working on what I wanted, with whom I really wanted to work."
After the student rejected Al-Awqati’s advances, the professor, who was in the next room, shouted to Legunia, "You are out!" Legunia cried and thought he was fired but Rosemary Sampoga, assistant professor of clinical medicine who also supervised Legunia and allegedly witnessed the incident, told the young man that she would help him keep his position. She recommended that he report the episode to human resources.
Leguina listened to Sampoga and brought the matter up with HR. Thinking this issue would be resolved, Legunia met with Mayra Marte-Miraz, the director of operations for the department of medicine 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.’"
But things quickly changed for the worse, just a few days later.
Marte-Miraz allegedly changed her tune and told the student to "deal with this matter as a big man" and that he "must pretend nothing happened," according to the lawsuit. The documents also claim that she told Leguina that he would be sent back to Chile if he tried to hire a lawyer or contact authorities in Chile about the situation.
"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 told the student newspaper.
Toward the end of the month, Al-Awqati allegedly attempted to apologize for his unprofessional behavior and gave the student a MacBook, which can cost up to $2,799.
When Legunia questioned the gift, his boss said it was standard practice at Columbia. But after that, the atmosphere in the workplace started to change as Al-Awqati stopped talking to Legunia altogether and Sampogna went from helpful to distant. The lawsuit states she would go out of her way to avoid conversation with him and instead, send him curt emails that outlined a to-do list.
"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."
Legunia decided to once again talk with HR about his difficult working conditions, but 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 said he was "too emotional" and that he had to handle the situation in the "American way," according to the lawsuit.
"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.
Work conditions did not improve. On June 8, he received an email from his supervisors in Chile. They told him due to poor feedback, he would have to to leave his coveted position and return to his country. The suit claims he was fired on June 12, but he was unaware of that and only found out that he was let go when he couldn’t log into the school computer.
Although Leguina does not have screencaps of the conversations he had on Grindr, he is working with officials from the gay dating app and hopes to retrieve them for his case.
A pretrial conference will take place on October 1.