A State Department officer has filed a lawsuit against the department over what he alleges was retaliation and disability discrimination after he reported experiencing in China a series of symptoms he says is the mysterious “Havana Syndrome.”
The federal suit from Mark Lenzi, who worked as a security engineering officer under the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) within the State Department, is the first known suit against the U.S. government over the unusual condition first reported in 2016 by diplomatic and intelligence personnel in Cuba.
Lenzi alleged that the State Department subjected him to retaliation and unlawful discrimination for exercising his First Amendment right to speak about his disability and about how he has been treated by the department.
He is seeking compensation for past and future loss of wages and benefits, including back and front pay with interest, an additional six years of credit toward his State Department retirement, reinstatement to a position comparable to his former positions, legal fees, and “financial compensation for emotional distress, pain, and suffering,” among other court actions.
According to the 46-page complaint (pdf), filed Dec. 8, Lenzi and his family, around November 2017, started experiencing “sudden and unexplained physical and psychological symptoms, including headaches, sleeplessness, lightheadedness, nosebleeds, and memory loss,” when he was stationed at the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou, China.
Lenzi, his wife, and his two children were “finally” administered Department of State Havana Acquired Brain Injury Tests months later in June 2018, which led to all four being medically evacuated to the Brain Injury Repair Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Lenzi started to receive treatment at the center.
In October 2018, Lenzi requested official disability accommodation arrangements from the State Department’s Disability and Reasonable Accommodation Division (DRAD), which he received in November 2018. The accommodations included two to four hours of remote work per day, extra time to complete tasks, and a reduced workload.
According to the complaint, Lenzi was reassigned to a domestic position in December 2018. Since then, he has been denied the opportunity for overseas positions and has not been promoted.
“This domestic position assigned him lower effective pay than the foreign postings he had held in the past, and did not provide some of the benefits to which Mr. Lenzi would have been entitled in a foreign posting, such as housing, paid schooling for his children, and other benefits,” according to the complaint. “On information and belief, none of the [DRAD] accommodations are incompatible with the positions that Mr. Lenzi sought and could have secured abroad, or would have prevented Mr. Lenzi from performing the essential functions of those positions.”
He was later transferred to another domestic position in October 2021. While the position is “one grade level above” Lenzi’s current status, Lenzi has not been promoted to the level “which would entitle him to an increased salary,” according to the complaint.
“Instead, Mr. Lenzi now fulfills the duties and responsibilities of a more senior FP-02 position while being compensated at the more junior FP-03 level, a situation referred to as a ‘stretch.’ Mr. Lenzi would most likely have been promoted already if not for the Agency’s discrimination and retaliation against him,” the complaint states.
“The State Department would not have assigned him such a position if they did not view Mr. Lenzi as an extremely skilled and capable employee. However, he is not being compensated or recognized accordingly.”
The complaint also detailed how, after Lenzi sent an email in May 2018 to his American diplomat colleagues warning them about the potential danger to their health and safety, the DSS ordered Lenzi to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. The ordered evaluation “constituted a crude and cruel act of retaliation against Mr. Lenzi for discussing his injuries and concern for his own health and that of his colleagues,” the complaint states.
It adds that by the time of the psychiatric evaluation order, Lenzi’s superiors were “well aware that numerous American officials stationed in Guangzhou and elsewhere were experiencing the same symptoms as Mr. Lenzi and his medevac’d neighbor.”
Separately, the complaint alleges that the State Department “has provided no justification for its differing treatment of injured American employees stationed in China compared to those stationed in Cuba.” The difference meant that Lenzi “received less support from the State Department in pursuing treatment” and faced administrative hurdles to receive medical care, it says. Furthermore, while officers in Cuba with the same diagnosed injuries could use administrative leave to receive treatment, Lenzi had to use his own sick leave to receive similar treatments, according to the complaint.
The complaint noted that a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania “towed [sic] the State Department’s line and suspiciously determined that Lenzi’s ‘symptoms and findings do not correlate with the Havana Cohort.'”
Lenzi in June 2020 requested that the State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services reconsider the decision and asserted that his diagnosed conditions “overlapped significantly” with conditions of two people injured in Havana.
The same doctor, Dr. Behzad Shahbazian, denied his request but added, “Nobody doubts your symptoms, many of which are similar to the Havana Cohort of patients.”
A State Department spokesperson told news outlets that it doesn’t comment on litigation matters, adding that “due to privacy concerns and for security reasons, we do not discuss specifics or Embassy operations, but we take each report we receive extremely seriously and are working to ensure that affected employees get the care and support they need.”
The United States under the Trump administration withdrew most of its staff members from the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, in 2017, after more than 20 staffers at the embassy in 2016 reported experiencing an array of neurological symptoms now referred to as “Havana Syndrome.”
“For some of these patients, their case began with the sudden onset of a loud noise, perceived to have directional features, and accompanied by pain in one or both ears or across a broad region of the head, and in some cases, a sensation of head pressure or vibration, dizziness, followed in some cases by tinnitus, visual problems, vertigo, and cognitive difficulties,” according to a State Department-commissioned report by the National Academy of Sciences in December 2020.
The report said that “the most plausible mechanism” behind the injuries is microwave radiofrequency radiation.
Culprits behind the alleged attacks have not been identified.
In October 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law a measure that provides for the funding of the treatment of “Havana Syndrome,” which has since affected more than 200 U.S. government employees.
State Secretary Antony Blinken met with “Havana Syndrome” victims in September and reassured them the administration is investigating the matter and seeks to provide them with proper care. In November, Blinken announced the appointment of two diplomats to investigate the cases and lead efforts to support care for the victims.