SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Chevron Corporation’s multi-million dollar “Human Energy” advertising campaign touts how much Chevron values people. Chevron’s website promotes the “Chevron Way” – the company’s commitment to complying with the law and placing “the highest priority on the health and safety of our workforce.”
The reality for John Suzuki, who worked at Chevron for over 35 years, was much different. An award-winning patent liaison in Chevron’s Law Department in Richmond, CA, Suzuki was forced to take early retirement this month rather than risk his health by returning to work under a supervisor who harassed and threatened him, and called him a “stupid Jap.”
Suzuki wanted to continue working at Chevron, but the company refused his doctors’ directives that he must be moved to a different department or else he would be at high risk of having a heart attack.
“Stupid Jap” Slur
The doctors had diagnosed Suzuki as being at high risk of another heart attack after he had at least two episodes of severe chest pains following incidents in which his supervisor, Alan Klaassen harassed him by yelling at him, making false accusations and threatening him.
After one such incident in January 2008, Suzuki went to his doctor, who told him that he had to reduce his workload or else he might have a heart attack. When Suzuki told Klaassen and a manager, Frank Turner, what his doctor said, Klaassen and Turner laughed at Suzuki.
Things came to a head in August 2009 when Klaassen again yelled at Suzuki, waved his fist in his face, threatened him and falsely blamed him for problems in the work. Klaassen also called Suzuki a “stupid Jap.”
Use of racial slurs by supervisors on the job violates federal and state anti-discrimination laws and laws prohibiting hostile and abusive work environments. As one federal appeals court noted in 1993, “Perhaps no single act can more quickly ‘alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment’ . . . than the use of an [unambiguous] racial epithet . . . by a supervisor….”
Following the August 2009 incident, Suzuki again suffered severe chest pains. His doctors put him on medical leave and have been treating him since then. They told Chevron that he could return to work only when he was taken out of his hostile work environment and moved to a different department.
Chevron categorically refused to consider moving Suzuki to a different department. If Suzuki did not return to his department and his supervisor Klaassen, he faced termination, Chevron told him.
Suzuki got an attorney, John Ota of Alameda, CA, who pointed out to Chevron that under California law, the company must separate Suzuki from Klaassen, at the very least until Chevron did a fair and thorough investigation of Suzuki’s charges that Klaassen had insulted him with a racial epithet and otherwise created a hostile work environment.
Investigation or Cover-up?
Demanding that Suzuki return to work under Klaassen before Chevron had even investigated the matter assumed that Klaassen would be cleared, Ota noted, an indication that Chevron had no intention of conducting a fair and objective investigation as required by law.
Chevron refused to budge. Faced with termination and the possible resulting loss of his retirement benefits, Suzuki reluctantly chose early retirement on February 1.
Meanwhile, Japanese American and Asian American organizations, disturbed about Suzuki’s situation, began contacting Chevron to express their concerns.
Richard Konda, Executive Director of Asian Law Alliance in San Jose wrote Chevron on January 12, stating that it was “highly inappropriate and insensitive” for Chevron to demand that Suzuki return to work under Klaassen before completing its investigation.
Patty Wada, Regional Director of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Northern California-Western Nevada-Pacific District, said in a January 22 letter that she was appalled to hear that Suzuki had been subjected to racial slurs by his supervisor.
Under pressure, Chevron hired an outside Japanese American attorney, Susan Kumagai, to investigate Suzuki’s charges. On her website, Kumagai describes herself as a specialist in “representing management” against discrimination charges.
Suzuki asked Kumagai and Chevron how many such investigations Kumagai had done in the past and in how many of those investigations, if any, she had concluded that a hostile work environment existed. Neither Kumagai nor Chevron responded to these questions.
Not surprisingly, Kumagai conducted a quick investigation and concluded that none of Suzuki’s charges could be substantiated. Chevron informed Suzuki of these results on February 16, but refused to provide him with a copy of Kumagai’s report.
In her hasty effort, Kumagai failed to even talk to some witnesses Suzuki said could confirm that he told them about Klaassen’s racial slur soon after it happened. Because in this, as in many other harassment cases, there were no witnesses to the actual harassment, such corroborating witnesses are often crucial to verifying the victim’s account of what happened.
The failure to interview corroborating witnesses, hiring as the investigator an attorney who defends management for a living, and Chevron’s refusal to provide Suzuki with a copy of the investigation report – these are all “signs pointing to a cover-up,” not a fair and objective investigation, says Ota.
Letter Writing Efforts
Suzuki is continuing to ask organizations to write Chevron on his behalf. What is important to him, he says, is “the principle of the matter – racial remarks like this cannot be tolerated.”
The points he wants organizations to make in their letters to Chevron are first, that Chevron conduct a fair and thorough investigation of his charges, an investigation by someone who has a history of doing evenhanded investigations, not by a management defense attorney.
Second, Suzuki wants Chevron to provide him with Kumagai’s investigation report, and also to provide the report when a fair and thorough investigation is completed.
Last, Suzuki asks that Chevron fire Klaassen if it finds that Klaassen did call Suzuki a “stupid Jap” and that Suzuki be allowed to return to work at Chevron in a different department.
Leaders of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR) in Los Angeles wrote to Chevron on February 10. Paul Osaki, Executive Director of the Japanese Community and Cultural Center of Northern California sent Chevron a letter on February 19.
Other organizations in Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco have also agreed to write to Chevron.
Those interested in contacting Chevron should write to: John S. Watson, Chief Executive Officer, Chevron Corp., 6001 Bollinger Canyon Road, San Ramon, CA 94583.
About the Author John Ota is a solo employment attorney in Alameda, CA. He has been representing employees for over 11 years in discrimination, retaliation, harassment, wrongful termination, and overtime pay cases. He is a member of the National Employment Lawyers Assoc. and the California Employment Lawyers Assoc.