PALMDALE – A Chinese-American former employee of Lockheed Martin Corp. is suing the aerospace firm, alleging he was forced to resign from his aeronautical engineering job in Palmdale in 2021 as a result of discrimination stemming in part from the fallout of former President Trump’s “China Initiative.”
Victor Hwa‘s Los Angeles County Superior Court lawsuit alleges wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, failure to prevent discrimination and harassment and both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. He seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
“Mr. Hwa understood the targeted investigation and subsequent retaliation to be part of the then-Trump Administration’s so-called China Initiative, a national security program ostensibly designed to prosecute espionage by agents of the Chinese government,” the lawsuit states.
The initiative was launched under the Trump administration to counter Beijing’s theft of American intellectual property. But it increasingly came under criticism from civil rights groups who said it created a climate of fear among Asian-Americans and was ended by the Justice Department in February 2022. According to Hwa’s suit, the initiative normalized racial profiling of Chinese-American and Chinese immigrant academics, scientists and engineers. A Lockheed Martin representative did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the suit brought Jan. 10.
Hwa, the 35-year-old son of Chinese immigrants, was hired as a staff aeronautical engineer in the company’s propulsion department in Palmdale in April 2017 and did well in his role, earning excellent performance reviews and awards early in his tenure at Lockheed, the suit states. However, Hwa’s career climb was stymied in early 2019 after he notified Lockheed he planned to travel to China to visit his aging grandfather, which revealed to the company his familial ties to China, the suit states. Hwa followed Lockheed’s protocol on reporting international travel prior to his trip and a Lockheed counter-intelligence investigator told the plaintiff that his trip was considered “low-risk,” the suit states. But Hwa noticed before his trip that he was being surveilled by Lockheed security personnel, some of whom moved into cubicles next to his work station and documented his whereabouts, according to the suit.
“During the course of this surveillance, one of these (security) employees pointedly asked plaintiff, ‘What country are you from?,”‘ the suit states. The day before Hwa’s April 2019 trip to China, an employee of a federal law enforcement agency that partnered with Lockheed security accused Hwa of stealing data, according to the suit. After Hwa returned from China the next month, he was questioned “in an aggressive and hostile manner” about his trip, the suit states. When Hwa said he thought he was being discriminated against, a security agent allegedly replied, “In a way.”
Hwa believes that a white colleague who traveled to Hong Kong not long before the plaintiff’s trip was not subjected to similar surveillance or questioning before and after his trip, the suit states. Hwa was subsequently accused of mishandling Lockheed information in August 2018 and he was called an “insider threat” during an interview, according to the suit. Lockheed’s investigation into Hwa yielded no evidence of wrongdoing on his part, but in retaliation for his complaints about discrimination he was shunned by his colleagues, stripped of nearly all his propulsion-related work and assigned to thermodynamics duty outside his propulsion specialty and for which he lacked training, the complaint states.
Hwa persisted in his complaints of disparate treatment and in January 2021 his department change was reversed and he was told he would receive some propulsion-related work, the suit states. However, he was rebuked for speaking out and told he should find a new job if he was not happy at Lockheed, the suit states. The next month, Hwa was given the lowest performance review of his career and he was never given the propulsion-related work he was promised, the suit states.
Hwa began suffering anxiety, humiliation, anguish and a stress-induced physical ailment, and by May 2021 his work conditions became so intolerable that he had no alternative but to resign from his position at Lockheed, the suit states. Hwa believes that in addition to his career at Lockheed being over, he also will be blacklisted from similar jobs at other such companies in Southern California, the suit states.