LOGO - Sandia National Laboratories SNL

LIVERMORE — A former senior manager at Sandia National Laboratories’ Livermore site has sued the company alleging his firing in 2020 was racially motivated.

Robert Hwang, who spent 28 years with Sandia, including as director of the Combustion Chemistry and Materials Science Center for his final six years, charges in his federal civil rights lawsuit that his supervisors treated him differently than six non-East Asian directors of the center, insulting, demeaning and embarrassing him.

Hwang, a native of Macau on the south coast of China, contends his supervisors, Doris Ellis and Andrew McIlroy, criticized him for not speaking up during meetings, failing to recognize his cultural upbringing emphasized remaining quiet and considering what to say, instead of “spitballing.”

“(Ellis) went so far as to suggest that I put my elbows on the table and lean forward to make sure everyone knew I was participating,” Hwang said in a statement. “Then when I did speak up, she criticized me or ignored what I said.”

Attorneys for the National Technology and Engineer Solutions of Sandia (NTESS) denied the scientist’s claims in court documents filed in response to his lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Paul Rhien, a Sandia spokesman, said he could not comment on pending litigation.

“Inclusion and diversity in the workplace are among Sandia’s defining principles, and we take allegations of employee discrimination on any basis very seriously,” Rhien said.

Hwang’s lawsuit said his problems began in 2017 when NTESS took over lab management from Lockheed Martin. Ellis and later McIllroy in 2019, became his bosses.

Hwang alleges they threatened to remove him as center director while pressuring him to take a demotion.

Unsuccessful, McIllroy ordered Hwang in December 2019 to develop a 60-day performance plan, resign or appeal to an executive review committee, the lawsuit said. Fearing he would lose his pension and retirement benefits if fired, Hwang announced he would retire in March 2020.

After realizing his benefits would not be affected if fired, Hwang rescinded his intent to retire in January 2020 and filed a discrimination case based on race and national origin with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the lawsuit said.

Hwang alleges Ellis and McIlroy then fired him.

Hwang, whose family arived in the United States in 1964, became a U.S. citizen in 1973. He holds a doctorate from the University of Maryland and completed his postdoctoral work at UC Berkeley and the University of Munich, Germany. He joined Sandia in 1991, holding various leadership positions.

The lawsuit said he received favorable performance evaluations until Ellis and McIlroy arrived. Ellis, the lawsuit said, accused him of insubordination, of canceling a presentation he was preparing to make in Albuquerque and later, of interrupting him as he gave another speech.

In a 2018 blog, Hwang published an entry on the Sandia website, titled, “Appreciating the Value of Quieter Voices, An Asian American Perspective.” The article said Asian and Pacific Islander culture placed a “great importance on humility and thoughtful, intentional communication,” which was not appreciated in American culture. Sandia meetings, he wrote, valued participants who “spitballed,” tossing out ideas in an informal way.

“Often those who sit quietly are perceived as being uninterested or having nothing to contribute,” Hwang wrote. “Early in my career, I realized that to raise my profile, I needed to participate in spitballing. This was a conscious choice and does not come naturally to me. Asian Pacific Islander cultures typically value well-developed ideas; we were raised to wait to speak until we had considered carefully what we were going to say and why.”

The lawsuit alleges Sandia committed violations of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically citing race and nationality. He also alleges Sandia retaliated against him for filing the EEOC complaint; and violated California's Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Hwang is seeking damages for loss of income, and mental and emotional distress.

His attorney, J. Edward Hollington, called Hwang an “American success story,” who “believed that if you worked hard and did a good job, you could succeed.”

Hollington said in a statement that Hwang tolerated his supervisors’ behavior for three years, only to be fired.

“This lawsuit is aimed at stopping this kind of anti-Asian discrimination, not only at the national laboratories, but also throughout the scientific and business communities.”

Hollington added that Hwang was the only East Asian lab director at Sandia, and there were no East Asian associate or deputy lab directors.

“What happened to Dr. Hwang reflects a negative stereotype that East Asians lack upper organizational leadership skills and abilities, causing a ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ that limits their opportunity to reach senior executive positions,” Hollington said.