Asian American attorney says she was passed up for promotions because of her race in federal lawsuit

An Asian American attorney based in Darien, Connecticut, has launched a federal lawsuit against her former employer for allegedly discriminating against her due to her race and sex.

Michelle Lee, who worked at Darien-based Portfolio Advisors for about 15 years, claims she received “racialized comments” and “repeated sexual remarks and advances” from colleagues at the firm. Supervisors who knew some of such incidents allegedly failed to provide a remedy.

Despite having outstanding reviews and being complimented for her hard work, Lee was allegedly called “ice queen,” “paper pusher” and “dirty and messy,” to name a few comments. She said she was passed on for promotions, and that whenever she got them, she would be paid less than her white peers.

“It's not right that a different standard applies to me as an Asian American woman I felt excluded and less than others, no matter how hard I worked or what I put up with,” Lee, a Yale Law School graduate, said in a statement. “For many years, I blamed myself, questioned my worth and lived with real psychological pain. I don’t want these types of experiences to keep happening to Asian American women.”

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Lee said she was also barred from purchasing equity in the firm, which currently has $38.3 billion in assets under management. Altogether, her negative experiences allegedly led to multiple health problems, including insomnia, stress-induced hives and eczema, lockjaw from grinding her teeth during sleep, acid reflux, heartburn, asthma and physical sickness, among other issues.

Lee said she decided to go public with her lawsuit to help improve the future of her children and the next generation of Asian Americans.

“I chose to bring this lawsuit publicly instead of accepting a resolution that would hide this case behind closed doors – knowing the personal cost – because I want to give my kids, and the next generation, a life without this discrimination,” she said. “Compared to other Asian Americans, I’m in a privileged position so I feel responsible for making a difference. People don’t deserve to be harassed and harmed just because they look Asian.”

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In a video posted on LinkedIn, Lee also described a veiled but familiar type of racism Asian Americans typically face.

“The types of discrimination AAPI’s face at work are so masked and subtle that there isn’t even a language for it. Oftentimes, it’s cloaked under subjective factors such as personality, likeability and leadership, which causes Asian Americans to internalize it,” Lee said. “Until I started speaking with other Asian Americans facing similar discrimination, I really began to wonder whether I was likeable and intelligent."

Nassiri & Jung LLP partner Charles Jung, who is representing Lee, said Asian Americans are increasingly coming forward to report their experiences and demand for change.

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“More and more Asian Americans are coming forward to report how they are experiencing pervasive patterns of racism in the workplace and demanding change. Discrimination against Asian Americans is so ignored that people suffer in silence. We hope Michelle’s story will encourage other people to come forward,” Jung said.

Justin Zhu, executive director of Stand with Asian Americans, which runs a workplace justice initiative, said companies and public officials must confront the pervasiveness of anti-Asian racism if they are serious about tackling it.

“Anti-Asian hate isn’t just about violence. Many of us spend most of our lives at work and we have a right to be free from discrimination,” Zhu said. “That’s why SwAA is dedicated to shining a spotlight on anti-Asian hate in the workplace, uplifting our community’s experiences, and holding anti-Asian employers accountable.”

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Featured Image via Michelle Lee