A former Ph.D student and staff associate at Columbia University filed a lawsuit claiming the school mishandled his complaint of sexual harassment by the student’s lab supervisor, and then wrongfully terminated the victim.
Unfortunately, firing a victim is not an uncommon result when an employee alleges a violation of workplace rights. New York City employment attorneys also know that sexual harassment is common in the university environment and may involve professors, staff or students.The plaintiff arrived from Chile last March to pursue his Ph.D. while working at the University. But, over the course of about three months, he contends he was sexually harassed by his supervisor, ignored by a university human resources officer, and ultimately fired from his dream job.
Typically, a supervisor-employee relationship is exploited in cases of sexual harassment. The university setting, as well as internship positions, can be ripe for such abuse because students want to please superiors and to excel. In this case the 25-year-old victim, who worked at the University while pursuing his Ph.D., contends in his lawsuit that he suffered retaliation after he complained of being sexually harassed by his supervisor, a professor of medicine, nephrology and hypertension at the Columbia University Medical Center.
According to the lawsuit, the victim had been at the university just a few days when he received a cell phone solicitation about dating older gay or bisexual men. The complaint charges that the supervisor sent the plaintiff messages via a social network, with the supervisor’s picture attached, asking the plaintiff “if he would like to date an older man.” After rejecting his supervisor’s online sexual advance, the lawsuit maintains, the plaintiff’s supervisor allegedly “came out of his office, approached Plaintiff….and screamed at him, ‘You are out!'”
The victim reported the harassment to another supervisor, who allegedly promised to talk with Columbia’s Chair of the Department of Medicine, and directed the plaintiff to human resources, according to the lawsuit. The victim contends that the university’s human resources representative offered to help file a formal complaint with Columbia’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, which is charged with investigating allegations of harassment or discrimination against university faculty and staff. He said the supervisor later apologized for the ongoing behavior, gave him an expensive computer, and allegedly told him to “pretend that nothing happened.”
In June, the lawsuit maintains, the Ph.D student was subsequently fired without notice or explanation, according to the allegations contained in the lawsuit. The university has declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
These cases are often a victim’s word against a superior’s. Any evidence or documentation of such behavior can go a long way toward proving a victim’s claim. In this case, the Columbia Spectator (the university’s student newspaper) reports that it reviewed detailed evidence gathered by the victim, including e-mails and text messages.
A law firm experienced in workplace harassment litigation will also review an employer or university’s track record of past allegations and its response to employment discrimination and workplace harassment complaints.
While still relatively rare, an increasing number of cases involving male-on-male sexual harassment are being reported. In fact, more than 16 percent of sexual harassment cases were filed by men in 2011, compared to 11.6 percent in 1997, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Both state and federal employment laws prohibit an employer from retaliating against an employee for making a complaint. In 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided in Carmona v. Resorts International Hotel, Inc. that in order to be protected under the law a victim must have an underlying complaint of discrimination that is reasonable and made in good faith.
In this case, the victim will apparently be forced to return to Chile because of a lack of funds because Columbia terminated his employment after he complainted about being sexually harassed. In general, it is a good idea for those who believe they are being harassed or discriminated against at work to seek the advice of an experienced employment law firm in New York or New Jersey at the earliest stages of such cases. Very frequently the culture in institutions where this behavior is allowed to thrive is such that significant legal protection — either before or after lodging a complaint — is not likely without the help of an experienced law firm.