Iowa State graduate student sues for alleged sexual harassment, gender-based retaliation
An Iowa State University graduate student sued the university, two supervisors and a co-worker for sexual harassment and gender-based retaliation.
Chelsea Iennarella-Servantez, a graduate student in the College of Veterinary Medicine, alleged that Vojtech Gabriel, a visiting scholar and research assistant from the Czech Republic, made a series of sexually inappropriate comments to her and about her loved ones for at least a year after his arrival in summer 2019. She also alleged he made unwanted physical contact.
Iennarella-Servantez, who is also the president of Iowa State's Graduate and Professional Student Senate, filed the lawsuit in April against the university, Gabriel, Karin Allenspach and Jonathan Mochel.
Allenspach and Mochel are professors who were Iennarella-Servantez's immediate supervisors, according to the lawsuit.
The alleged conduct, for which her lawsuit gives specific dates, included frequent requests for hugs she did not want to give; questions and comments about her reproductive status related to her age; saying he needed an intimate relationship with her; saying she reminded him of a former boss whom he allegedly referred to using a derogatory term; messages from him that were sexually-explicit in language or use of emojis, and comments about the attractiveness of her husband and female friends of hers.
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Iennarella-Servantez also alleged that while she was at the same February 2020 conference in Colorado as Gabriel, she used an outdoor hot tub with two female graduate students when Gabriel arrived and noticed the tattoos on her shoulders. She alleged that Gabriel grabbed her, spun her around to look at her tattoos and asked why she had not told him about them.
Her lawsuit states that she reported Gabriel's alleged behavior to Allenspach and Mochel multiple times. She told Allenspach that she had begun receiving counseling because of anxiety from dealing with the alleged behavior, the lawsuit states.
She also alleges Gabriel accused her more than once of "trying to get him deported"; moved her name down on a list of authors for a project; used data from an abstract of hers for a submission of his; neglected his lab responsibilities and, in December 2020, refused to help her clean up a lab after allegedly dropping test tubes on purpose.
ISU official allegedly told student to 'forgive the guy'
Iennarella-Servantez's lawsuit states she went to see the chair of the biomedical sciences department, Michael Kimber, to provide documentation of Gabriel's alleged misconduct.
Kimber allegedly told her she could finish her doctoral program in his lab and advised her that the university's Office of Equal Opportunity would need to investigate her complaints against Gabriel.
Iennarella-Servantez said she did not want to change labs and felt she was being punished for reporting Gabriel's alleged behavior.
A split-work arrangement was established in March 2021 to let her use the same lab as Gabriel but not at the same times, but she allegedly told the associate dean of the graduate college, Carolyn Cutrona, that the hours she was assigned limited her ability to complete her research.
Cutrona allegedly told her that "'the harassment case may not produce a favorable result,'" that Iennarella-Servantez should "'forgive the guy,'" and that the "'best vengeance' would be to complete her degree and have a successful career."
Iennarella-Servantez was later notified from the Equal Opportunity office that Gabriel's alleged conduct would not constitute sexual harassment, according to her lawsuit.
Kimber later allegedly told her that, based on that assessment, the university's legal department had said Gabriel could not be removed from the program.
He later allegedly told her that the department would do an independent review of the allegations but could only ask Gabriel questions that had been approved by the university's legal department.
Iennarella-Servantez alleged in her lawsuit that Allenspach’s husband, a lawyer, acted as Gabriel's counsel during the investigation and complaint process.
By August, Iennarella-Servantez alleged, she had been "effectively alienated from the laboratory group" to the detriment of academic authorship, and that she was told she was no longer guaranteed a medical residency that had been offered before.
Iennarella-Servantez's lawsuit added that Gabriel allegedly stalked her last fall by following her to class, sitting next to her while she worked at a cafe and staring at her.
Iennarella-Servantez filed a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and received a right-to-sue letter on Jan. 12 this year, according to her lawsuit.
She is seeking for a jury to award her unspecified amounts of compensatory and punitive damages — whatever would be considered "reasonable and proper."
University spokesperson says concerns were investigated, found unsupported
Gabriel and Allenspach did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Mochel deferred comment to the university and its legal counsel.
University spokesperson Angie Hunt said, "The university cannot discuss the specifics of pending litigation, but these concerns were investigated by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and administratively closed as unsupported by the facts."
The commission's executive director, Stan Thompson, said per Iowa law the commission cannot disclose whether a complaint has even been filed in the first place.
The commission's outline of its procedures for processing complaints, however, does include the possibility of someone being able to receive a right-to-sue letter after a complaint is administratively closed.
Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.