After 10 years of working at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History as an IT manager, Bryan Torres has filed a federal suit against the museum for creating an intolerable hostile working environment. According to the complaint, Torres’ supervisor, Juan Montes, subjected him to ongoing harassment because of his sexual orientation and HIV status, creating “working conditions so difficult and unpleasant that a reasonable person in his shoes would have felt compelled to resign.”
The suit says Torres has been diagnosed with HIV and narcolepsy, and also suffers from a genetic mutation that makes it harder to treat his HIV symptoms. Since 2012, Torres has been provided a medical accommodation allowing him to take shorter hours “when his medical conditions necessitated,” which the suit says did not impact his ability to perform all of his duties. Montes was hired as Torres’ supervisor in April 2015, and the accommodation continued for over a year, apparently without concern.
But in May 2016, Torres collapsed at home as a result of HIV-related medical issues and had to be rushed to the emergency room. He took two days off work to recover, and, when he returned, updated Montes on his health, disclosing that he was HIV-positive in the process. This allegedly prompted what became an unrelenting backlash.
“[T]he disease carries a stigma to this day.”
“I should have been told what your medical issues are,” Montes responded, according to the suit. “I can’t have your medical issues interfering with my vision for the Museum.” He also allegedly told Torres that he was a “danger” to Montes and his family because of his HIV status. Montes had also gone to human resources to demand all of Torres’ medical records so that he could “decide whether [he] wanted to work with someone like [Mr. Torres],” according to the suit.
When Torres assured Montes he was managing his condition and was no “danger” to him, Montes allegedly responded, “I don’t know that. I don’t know anything about it!”
The museum has said it will not comment on pending litigation.
Recounting that experience to HIV Plus Magazine, Torres recalled, “I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t a danger to him or his family, but he ran out of the room yelling, ‘I don’t know that! I don’t know anything about it!’ But the disease carries a stigma to this day. It provokes apathy and resentment, not sympathy. Montes even said to me, ‘You’re absolutely right, there is no compassion.’”
After that, Montes allegedly attempted to sabotage Torres’ career in various ways. For example, shortly after the conversation, the suit claims he told the museum administration that Torres was “missing” the day after his hospitalization. Though they had spoken on the phone and Montes knew Torres was in the hospital, he allegedly claimed that “no one knew where he was.”
On another occasion, Montes allegedly tried to claim that Torres had mistakenly booked him on a trip to Syracuse instead of to Rochester. When Torres investigated what he was led to believe was his own error, the travel agency shared with him emails Montes had sent switching the travel to Syracuse, which he never actually traveled to, according to the suit. Torres had not made a mistake at all; according to the suit, “the entire trip was a complete fabrication, intended to create an excuse for Mr. Montes to give Mr. Torres negative performance feedback.”
Those incidents are but two examples from what the suit describes as a “campaign of harassment and discrimination” in which Montes allegedly did “everything in his power to pressure Mr. Torres into leaving his position at the Museum.” This included taking away Torres’ responsibilities and reassigning his tasks to less experienced employees, according to the suit.
A 2011 study found that 25 percent of Americans still believe HIV can be transmitted by sharing a drinking glass. At that time, only about half the country felt “very comfortable” working with someone who has HIV.
Despite the fact that the museum had approved the accommodation long before Montes was even hired, he allegedly tried to punish Torres with low performance evaluations because of his late arrivals. When Torres insisted his time off was covered by his accommodation, sick leave, and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, Montes complained that the law was getting in the way of his desire to fire him, according to the suit.
“But if it were not FMLA days, I could terminate you, right?” the suit recounts him saying. “If I didn’t know about your medical condition, then I could terminate you, right?”
After the first couple incidents occurred after his disclosure, Torres says he complained to the museum’s human resources department, but it didn’t respond. Only a year later, in this past March, did the museum conduct any sort of investigation — after Torres retained counsel. But rather than acknowledge any mistreatment, human resources allegedly told Torres that if he didn’t return to work to continue enduring the harassment, they would stop paying him.
“I hoped that something would click in his head so he’d stop behaving that way. I put my trust in the human resources department but it just kept getting bigger and bigger, and anything he requested of human resources in regards to me was granted,” he said.
Speaking to WABC’s Eyewitness News, Torres explained, “I can’t do this anymore to myself. I can’t subject myself to this on a daily basis.”
Torres reports experiencing extreme anxiety from the harassment, which only exacerbates his medical conditions. “You can’t treat someone like this based on a disability or anything else,” he told HIV Plus Magazine. “It’s not humane.”
The lawsuit claims that the museum interfered Torres’ access to FMLA leave, violated the New York City Human Rights Law’s protections on behalf of disability and sexual orientation, inflicted emotional distress, and unlawfully deducted wages.