Yahoo Executive Sued for Sexual Harassment and Wrongful Termination

Nan Shi, a principal software engineer for Yahoo filed against Maria Zhang, senior director of engineering for Yahoo Mobile on July 8th. The complaint was filed in Santa Clara Superior Court in San Jose, California. According to the complaint Maria Zhang, the Yahoo executive, sexually harassed a woman who worked under her, Nan Shi.

Nan Shi worked for Yahoo since February 2013. She alleges that Zhang coerced her into engaging in sexual acts on numerous occasions in Sunnyvale, California with promises of a “bright future” dependent upon her agreement to participate. Nan Shi is seeking monetary and punitive damages. Yahoo is also named as a defendant in the suit. A representative for Yahoo advised that they believe there is no basis for the claims made by Nan Shi and that Maria Zhang is an exemplary Yahoo executive. They intend to fight the allegations and clear her name.  

Zhang’s mobile company, Alike, was acquired by Yahoo in 2013. She had previously worked with Microsoft and Zillow. In the complaint filed, Shi accuses Zhang of downgrading her performance reviews unfairly. Further accusations are aimed at the Yahoo human resources department personnel who Shi claims refused to conduct an investigation when she complained about advances being made by her direct supervisor.  According to Shi, instead of conducting an investigation into the matter as she requested, they put her on unpaid leave and eventually terminated her from the company.

For more information on sexual harassment in the work place or wrongful termination suits contact Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik. 

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), it is illegal to sexually harass another employee in the workplace. Sexual harassment is forbidden under FEHA and Government Code section 12940. FEHA law is administered by the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission (FEHC). The FEHC considers sexual harassment to include verbal, physical, and visual harassment. Sexual harassment protections encompass both professional relationships and independent contractors.

Sexual harassment may occur in a professional relationship in which the client or customer is sexually harassed. These relationships covered by FEHA include: doctor/patient, attorney/client, landlord/tenant, teacher/student, and many other similar relationships. An independent contractor is described as any “person providing services pursuant to a contract.” Under FEHA, it is illegal to sexually harass an independent contractor. It is also illegal to harass on the basis of that person’s gender, race, religious views, marital status, sexual orientation, etc.

An unwanted sexual advance from a coworker of the same sex is also considered sexual harassment under FEHA. A California court of appeal determined that sexual harassment includes unwanted advances regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of the victim or the harasser. This was decided in Mogilefsky v. Superior Court. A California court of appeal did, however, decide that the use of vulgar language that is not motivated by sexual interest does not amount to same-sex harassment.

If there is special treatment resulting from a consensual romantic relationship, then it is not typically considered sexual harassment. A California court did not acknowledge a claim for sexual harassment in which a romantic relationship between a supervisor and a secondary employee resulted in the special treatment of the secondary employee. Therefore, the law does not forbid special treatment based on consensual romantic relationships. The court did come to suggest, however, that there may be grounds for a lawsuit if a romantic involvement with a manager will lead an employee to work-related benefits. Furthermore, there could be grounds for a lawsuit if an affair involving a manager and an employee creates a hostile and uncomfortable work environment.

In a California Supreme Court case, there were two female employees at a prison who claimed that the warden had initiated sexual affairs with several other female employees. The employees involved in the affairs were alleged to receive rewards, promotions, and favorable tasks as a result of their romantic relationships. The Court decided that the extensive sexual favoritism in this workplace created a hostile work environment because the female employees were led to believe that sexual conduct with their supervisor would result in favorable treatment or discrimination in the workplace.