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UM professor accused of racist, xenophobic behavior toward Egyptian scientist in lawsuit

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

A University of Michigan cancer researcher repeatedly exhibited "racist,” “misogynistic,” and “xenophobic” behavior toward a female colleague and UM officials did not adequately address her concerns when she complained, according to a federal lawsuit.

UM urology professor Mark L. Day worked with Layla Fakhr El-Din El-Sawy, an Egyptian biologist, between 2012 and 2017 as part of a research agreement between the university, Day and Egyptian European Pharmaceutical Industry, a pharmaceutical firm.

EEPI scientists discovered a wild plant native to the Nile Valley in Egypt and Day and UM were studying whether the plant contained compounds that might be further researched as anti-cancer agents.

Day is accused in the lawsuit of doing "shoddy" research, falsifying at least one experiment and creating a hostile work environment for El-Sawy based on his disdain for her.

The University of Michigan will hire a firm to help assess and change the culture of sexual misconduct surrounding faculty members.

He "demeaned and verbally attacked" her, subjected her to "relentless harassment and discrimination" and at one point emailed and texted her 30 times in a seven-hour period when he was angry, according to the lawsuit.

He also demanded she not challenge his authority because he was "the boss," according to the suit. 

“I am a white guy in the United States and I can do whatever the hell I want and nobody will believe you," Day once told her, according to the suit. 

El-Sawy and EEPI filed the lawsuit on Dec. 30 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan against Day and the UM Board of Regents. Allegations include breach of contract, violation of disclosure agreements and harassment of and discrimination against El-Sawy. The company and El-Sawy are seeking more than $6 million in damages. 

Day did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Rochester-based Miller Law Firm, which is representing El-Sawy and EEPI, declined comment. 

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the university, "will carefully review the complaint."

The research collaboration between Day, UM and EEPI and El-Sawy began in 2012.

The work focused on Ambrosia maritima, a flowering plant that naturally grows along the banks of the Nile River in Egypt and has been used in medicine to treat some cancers. The plant’s uses in medicine have been studied by El-Sawy’s father, Egyptian biologist Mohamed Fakhr El-Din El-Sawy, since the 1960s. The father-daughter team has collaborated on research of the plant for years independent of UM, according to the suit.

Layla El-Sawy, a senior scientist at EEPI engaged in cancer research, volunteered in Day's laboratory in 2010 while studying in the U.S. Day expressed interest in the El-Sawys' research, according to the lawsuit.

In June 2012, EEPI entered into a contract “for less than $100,000” with Day and UM to conduct an exploratory study of the plant as a potential source of an anti-cancer agent.

El-Sawy claims in the lawsuit Day engaged in a pattern with her that included threats, excessive profanity and claims of his superiority because he is a white male and she is an Arab and Muslim woman of Egyptian heritage.

"Day did not exhibit the same behavior towards white people, Americans, or men who worked in the laboratory," the lawsuit claims.

But the research proceeded, and in 2015 EEPI agreed to a new contract with UM and Day for preclinical research to determine whether a potential drug was safe and effective enough to conduct clinical trials on people as well as a final report on its findings.

The company increased its overall investment to $2.3 million and the company said it would rely on the final report to decide whether to proceed to the clinical testing phase for the new drug as well as obtain financing and apply for patent protection. The contract called for UM and Day to produce a report by the end of June 2017, EEPI’s attorneys argue.

By the spring of 2017, Day told EEPI officials the report would have to be delayed; more time and money was needed, according to the lawsuit. EEPI insisted on a report, and when Day produced a four-page memo with a PowerPoint presentation, the company accused UM and Day of “shoddy” research"unworthy of a university that holds itself out as a first-class medical research establishment." EEPI officials determined the preclinical study had been conducted “poorly” and “outside of scientific norms” and its results were effectively meaningless and its optimistic conclusions “completely unsupported,” according to the suit.

"Worse, upon closer examination it became apparent that the results of at least one experiment cited in the 'final report' had been falsified, apparently to justify Day’s excessive expenses and to position the experiment’s results as a discovery constituting the intellectual property of Day and/or U-M," the lawsuit claims.

EEPI officials argued in the lawsuit the final report didn’t establish or disprove the potential new drug’s safety and effectiveness.

In August 2017, one month after the second contract ended, EEPI officials accused Day of revealing confidential information during an interview for an article published in the publication “Southernmost Flyer” produced at the Naval Air Station Key West, Florida.

When EEPI officials told Day they no longer wanted to continue the relationship, he patronized and threatened company officials over seven emails, according to the lawsuit.

"I think you people need to calm down and understand that I did not violate the contract," he wrote in one email, according to the suit. "If you void the collaboration at this point due to your hysterical overreaction to this article … then you are at fault. I am very shocked and disappointed by you people!”

He then, according to the suit, "focused his alarming rage" on El-Sawy for days including calling and texting her 30 times in a seven-hour period on Aug. 30, 2017. Some were minutes apart, according to the lawsuit.

"I AM NOT IN BREACH OF CONTRACT!," Day began, according to the lawsuit. "YOU ARE AND UM LAWYERS ARE GOING TO INVALIDATE EVERYTHING. AND I WILL WRITE THE PAPER BASE ON ALLOF [sic.] OUTR [sic.] DATA AND I WILL NOT EVEN ACONWLEDGE [sic.] EEPI."

Within the next two hours, Day called El-Sawy four times.

El-Sawy texted Day and told him she was at the movie theater.

"U have to call me ASAP," Day texted in response. "Big problems!!!!!”

Day called El-Sawy a fifth and sixth time, and texted her in between, according to the lawsuit.

"Layla!!!!!!" Day texted. "Everything is off the table ... I will also invalidate the whole project with your ministry of health in Egypt!”

By 8 p.m., Day had called El-Sawy 10 times.

Two minutes after he called, he sent her another text.

“Layla you had better (expletive) f...... call me or you and I are done as friends !!!!!!” Day texted.

By 9 p.m., he texted her another three times and called her three more times.

"Layla you did this! You showed them the article and trashed my reputation," Day allegedly wrote. "I am sooo mad at you! You have stabbed me in the back!”

By 11 p.m., Day had called El-Sawy a 14th time, and texted her another five times.

"You had better answer your phone!!" Day said. "If i have to i will fly over there and address this personally with you guys! And it won't be pretty!”

By the end of the day, Day allegedly called  El-Sawy 14 times, sent 15 texts and eight emails, according to the lawsuit.

Over the next few days, the lawsuit claims Day continued to send numerous emails to UM and EEPI officials, and texts to El-Sawy, including:

"You know I am mad but I am calming down," Day wrote. "Now I am very worried about your scientific reputation. If u call and talk to me I will protect you as much as I can ... I don't think u understand how bad this is going to get ...

"I have taken care of you and your scientific career and reputation has flourished under me, but it is in jeopardy."

El-Sawy filed a complaint against Day with UM in October 2017.

UM, however, scheduled a disciplinary review hearing against El-Sawy for not performing her job duties, according to the lawsuit. UM's Office of the General Counsel informed El-Sawy that Day would attend.

When the hearing was held in February 2018, El-Sawy described Day's patterns of behavior toward her and how the behavior escalated and UM officials apologized and said Day's behavior would not be tolerated, according to the lawsuit.

A month later, El-Sawy filed a second complaint against Day.

Two months later, on April 10, 2018, Day wrote an apology letter to El-Sawy. He wrote a second letter of apology in July, following the request of EEPI's counsel, according to the lawsuit.

In November 2018, a third and fourth formal complaint was filed, one of which addressed UM's failure to take action on the first complaint.

El-Sawy got a letter in May 2019 from David Bloom, chair of the UM Department of Urology, explaining the results of a scientific and financial audit of the research project. 

"While some minor errors in a graph, for example, were present, the integrity of the work itself is not in doubt," Bloom wrote, according to the lawsuit. "Over the several decades of my experience with the Day lab, research misconduct have [sic] never been an issue."

But UM did not include any evidence to support its conclusions, according to the lawsuit.

In his two apology letters, Day committed to collaborate with El-Sawy on the publication of two research papers, according to the lawsuit, and between April 2018 and January 2019, El-Sawy collaborated with Day on the papers. The lawsuit claims despite El-Sawy’s best efforts the papers were never completed.

Her employment with UM ended on June 30, 2019, Fitzgerald said.

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com