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Samsung Research America sued for racist remarks and wrongful termination

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Complaint made by ILG Legal Office

 

Samsung Research America (SRA) in Silicon Valley, Samsung’s advanced research and development organization and a key overseas R&D hub, faces accusations of violating labor laws.

The lawsuit alleges that SRA executives excluded certain employees based on their skin color from an event in preparation for a visit to the United States by Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong.

Recently, SRA sought a settlement concerning a mandatory arbitration clause in the plaintiff’s employment contract. However, Judge Evette D. Pennypacker, presiding over the case, denied Samsung’s motion to compel arbitration, deeming the arbitration agreement “unconscionably one-sided” and therefore unenforceable.

Andrew Mo, 38, a Chinese American who served as a senior director and principal engineer at SRA, filed a discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit against Samsung, as per the Santa Clara County Superior Court.

The complaint, filed in December 2022, requests a jury trial and argues that the plaintiff is entitled to an award of punitive damages, which will be determined at the time of trial, along with attorneys’ fees and costs, as mandated by statute.

According to the complaint, the incident occurred in November 2021 during preparations for Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong’s North America business trip.

At the time, the vice chairman had recently been released from prison on parole and embarked on a series of trips to North America, including a visit to SRA.

The complaint reveals that discriminatory and harassing behavior towards Samsung SmartThings employees, who included members of protected classes, was perpetrated by their supervisor Kiho Kim, a Korean national and Vice President at SRA. The unlawful animus was explicit; for instance, Kiho Kim explicitly stated that individuals with “dark skin” should wait outside.

SRA’s anti-harassment policies state that managers and supervisors who witness, learn of, or reasonably suspect discriminatory or harassing behavior have a special obligation to promptly report any suspected or actual violations of the policy, the complaint asserts.

In line with this policy, Mo met with SRA’s Director of Human Resources, Sanchita Gupta, and SRA CEO/President, Wonil Roh, via Microsoft Teams.

The plaintiff claims that this is when the retaliation began. A week after Mo reported suspected harassment and discrimination to SRA Human Resources, on December 22, 2021, Mo’s supervisor Kiho Kim announced the reassignment/reorganization of one of Mo’s direct reports, a Korean male team director and their team, to be placed under Kim’s direct supervision.

“I subsequently took approved paid leave (December 28-31, 2021), with official approval from Mr. Kim, only to be told that HR could not contact me, implying that the leave was unauthorized.”

Mo subsequently submitted his approved leave log as evidence but received no response from HR. “SRA has a policy in its employee handbook stating that it may terminate an employee who is absent without leave for more than three days. Gupta’s inquiry was significant as SRA has policies documented in its employee handbook stating that it can/will terminate employees for unauthorized work absences of three days or longer.”

According to the complaint, on the morning of January 19, 2022, the plaintiff received an email from Sanchita Gupta, the SRA Director of Human Resources, stating that his employment with Samsung would be terminated effective immediately. Mo’s termination was without cause, and Gupta cited “role elimination” as the reason for termination.

The plaintiff alleges in the complaint that “Plaintiff’s termination was wrongful, without cause, and “role elimination” was SRA’s pretext.” Even after Mo’s termination, the SRA continued to conduct visual intelligence research, retained Mo’s role in a position of equal responsibility, and recruited new staff.

SRA attempted to settle the case by relying on an arbitration clause in Mo’s employment contract.

However, Judge Evette D. Pennypacker, presiding over the case, denied Samsung’s motion to compel arbitration, finding the arbitration agreement “unconscionably one-sided.”

According to the plaintiff’s ILG law firm, during the hiring process, Mo had requested the arbitration clauses be modified or removed from his employment contract, but Samsung insisted they were non-negotiable.

Stephen N. Ilg, of ILG Legal Office PC, representing Mo in the case, commented: “Samsung sought to compel arbitration based on the terms of the employment contract, but the court has shown that it will not simply rubber-stamp applications to compel public proceedings into private arbitration.”

The Korea Daily reached out to Samsung for comment on the case but did not receive a response as of September 27.

Meanwhile, according to Samsung, SRA was founded in 1988. It relocated to its current Mountain View campus in late 2013. SRA is the organization responsible for creating Samsung’s future technologies and is renowned for attracting talent from Silicon Valley, the heart of the world’s high-tech industry. Andrew Mo, who filed the lawsuit, previously worked at Google and Crowdstrike as Chief of Artificial Intelligence Research.

BY YEOL JANG    [jang.yeol@koreadaily.com]

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