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Iranian-born scientist sues University of Alabama at Birmingham, alleges discrimination

"Our country does not need your kind," Fariba Moeinpour said she was told.

An Iranian-born research scientist alleges that a former University of Alabama at Birmingham co-worker harassed her for nine years because of her ethnicity and even threatened her with a pistol but that the school failed to stop the abuse even after she repeatedly complained.

Image: Fariba Moeinpour.
Fariba Moeinpour.Courtesy Barrett and Farahany

The woman, Fariba Moeinpour, said in a federal discrimination lawsuit filed in the Northern District of Alabama that Mary Jo Cagle, a data analyst at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, or UAB, taunted her for having a “weird ass” name, called her a “b----” and told her repeatedly to “go back to Iran.”

“Our country does not need your kind,” Cagle said, the lawsuit alleged.

The abuse escalated over the years, Moeinpour said in the lawsuit, which claimed that Cagle once nearly ran her and her daughter over with a car and that she later pulled a gun on her “in the UAB parking deck while telling her that this is what ‘we’ do to a ‘sand n-----.’”

Moeinpour said she repeatedly complained over the nine-year period to UAB’s human resources department and to her and Cagle’s supervisor, Clinton Grubbs, about the harassment. Grubbs initially “dismissed her complaints and told her to focus on her work,” the lawsuit alleged. When he did intervene, Grubbs told Moeinpour that Cagle had also threatened him, it said. It all came to a head on Feb. 18, 2020, when Moeinpour was fired after an argument with Grubbs over how to deal with Cagle escalated into violence, according to court documents.

In response to a series of questions about Moeinpour’s claims, UAB spokeswoman Alicia Rohan said, “UAB does not comment on pending litigation.”

A woman who answered Cagle’s cellphone number said, “I’m not speaking with anyone at this time.”

Also named in the lawsuit were UAB’s employee relations chief, Kelly Mayer, and the University of Alabama board of trustees, which oversees the state’s public university system. NBC News has reached out to both. NBC News also left a message for Grubbs, who is not named as a defendant. It was not immediately clear whether Grubbs still works for UAB.

Moeinpour, 59, a naturalized U.S. citizen who emigrated from Iran in 1989, said she has been struggling to find another job since she was fired and that she is surviving with the help of her daughter.

“What happened to me was awful,” she said. “The abuse just continued and continued and continued, and nobody would help me, not Dr. Grubbs, not UAB, not anybody. I had to tolerate everything, because I am a scientist and I needed this job, because I have a daughter.”

Moeinpour, who had worked for another UAB researcher, transferred to Grubbs’ lab in February 2011 after she found evidence of data falsification and manipulation and reported it to the Office of Research Integrity, an agency of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, said Grace Starling, one of her attorneys at the Barrett & Farahany law firm in Atlanta.

The lawsuit alleged that Cagle began abusing Moeinpour almost from the moment she started working for Grubbs at the UAB School of Medicine.

The matter was brought to the attention of a UAB associate vice president in 2012, according to a letter shared with NBC News. In the letter, David Wright, director of the Office of Research Integrity, questioned whether Cagle and another lab worker were punishing Moeinpour for being a whistleblower.

Moeinpour alleged that nothing changed.

“Over the next several years, Defendant Cagle continued her campaign of harassment unabated,” the suit said. “She told fellow employees that, because Ms. Moeinpour is a Middle Eastern woman from Iran, she is a non-believer in God, that she is stupid, and that she hated Ms. Moeinpour’s accent.”

Cagle, the lawsuit said, spat on the ground while passing Moeinpour, urged Grubbs “to get rid of” her and “recruited fellow employees to help her in harassing and abusing Ms. Moeinpour.”

Moeinpour said in the court papers that Grubbs told her he was threatened after he told Cagle she would be fired if she did not stop her abusive behavior. “The next day, four men came to his house, shoved him against the car, and said, ‘This is your second warning. If you do it again, there won’t be a third one’ and left,” according to the lawsuit.

Grubbs told Moeinpour that “Cagle was in the mafia” and that he was afraid of her, according to the lawsuit. Afterward, Moeinpour said, Grubbs refused to discipline Cagle and said that if Moeinpour kept trying to complain, it would be his word against hers, according to the lawsuit.

Moeinpour said she appealed to Mayer, the employee relations director, for help but that “she was ignored, rebuffed, and on at least one occasion told by Defendant Mayer to go see a psychologist.”

“Despite Ms. Moeinpour’s reports of discrimination to Defendant Mayer in Human Resources and to her supervisor, Dr. Grubbs, Defendant Cagle continued to discriminate, harass, and mock Ms. Moeinpour on a near-daily basis because she was Middle Eastern and from Iran,” the suit said.

Finally, in February 2020, the lawsuit said, Moeinpour informed Grubbs that she had called human relations and reported that Cagle had threatened his life and that she was going to tell his supervisor, as well.

“Dr. Grubbs grew increasingly agitated, said he would lose his job, that they would ask why he hadn’t reported her complaints, and that he would kill himself if that happened,” the lawsuit said.

Grubbs, the lawsuit alleged, had called campus police to have Moeinpour arrested “to shut her up about Defendant Cagle’s actions.”

Moeinpour said that when she told Grubbs she had proof that she had told him about her allegation of abuse against Cagle, Grubbs “grabbed Ms. Moeinpour by the chin and knocked her down, cutting her face with his nails and causing her to bleed,” the lawsuit said.

“When Ms. Moeinpour fell to the floor, he fell on top of her and held her down,” it said. “In an effort to get him off of her, Ms. Moeinpour slapped him.”

Moeinpour admitted when campus police arrived that she had struck Grubbs “to try to make him stop attacking and groping her,” according to the lawsuit.

Moeinpour was being driven to jail hours later, according to the lawsuit, which said UAB subsequently fired her “for violating its policy against fighting and absenteeism, despite knowing that Ms. Moeinpour had said she was attacked by Grubbs and without interviewing her or asked her for evidence to substantiate her claims.”

Moeinpour repeated her account in the complaint she filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August 2020 under her former married name, Fariba Moeinpour Lawsen. She is divorced.

The UAB police department’s Feb. 13, 2020, domestic violence report described Moeinpour as an “out of control” aggressor who slapped Grubbs during an argument.

Grubbs said in the report that the quarrel was sparked when Moeinpour “went over his head and contacted his supervisor without first contacting him.” The report did not say why Moeinpour did so. Grubbs said he did not want to press charges and that they “had been in a relationship in the past year.”

Moeinpour told NBC News: “I never had a romantic relationship with Dr. Grubbs.”

Moeinpour, who is seeking unspecified damages for "mental and emotional suffering," grew emotional as she recounted her ordeal.

"It was nine years of anguish," she said.