A lawsuit filed against Juul in December, obtained this week by Yahoo Lifestyle, contains shocking details about a former employee’s time at the e-cigarette maker, where she alleges she was subjected to “severe” and “pervasive” sexual harassment and abuse, then was “wrongly terminated” as retaliation for reporting it.
Juul has denied all claims.
Kai Yin (who goes by “Carrie Chuang”) was brought on as a consultant in August 2016 — after which she was hired to be the company’s global supply chain manager. She claims the sexual harassment began just two months into her time with Juul, first with an executive named Manoj Misra, who made “aggressive and unwanted” sexual advances. Months later, Chuang claims, another employee, Cole Hatton, subjected her to “sexually suggestive comments,” creating a “hostile work environment” at the company’s San Francisco office. Chuang says Hatton’s behavior escalated during a business meeting in November 2017, when he began “touching [her] buttocks and breasts and kissing her face and ears without her consent.”
After the incidents, Chuang says, she reported the conduct to at least three top employees, including David Dykes, Aaron Keller and Brad Ferkol, the latter of whom is currently the vice president of operations at Juul, according to LinkedIn. Rather than address the conduct, Chuang says, Dykes warned her to “avoid reporting the matter further,” while Ferkol allegedly said he would “look into” her allegations but added that he was “very busy.” Chuang says she was never interviewed about any of the incidents.
According to the complaint, things seemingly got worse in February 2018 when Chuang says Keller — one of the people to whom she initially reported the harassment and abuse — made “unwelcome sexual advances” toward her during a team-building event, saying his hotel room had a “very big jacuzzi” and then asking her to sleep over. Chuang says he became so aggressive that she felt afraid and asked another co-worker to “escort her away from the situation.”
In the wake of rebuffing Keller’s advances, Chuang says she began to hear “false and malicious rumors” being spread about her, in which others claimed she had taken bribes from a vendor as well as engaged in a “sexual affair.” Chuang denies all such rumors in the complaint, insisting that the statements were defamatory. The former Juul employee alleges that the rumors were fueled by Rajeev Bhalla, Juul’s current vice president of engineering, who is one of two individual defendants named in the lawsuit.
Chuang claims in the complaint that the rumors led the company to take the “outrageous step” of launching an investigation against her, in which executives then accused her of “downloading company files” and giving them to a former employee. She says the investigation culminated in a December 2018 meeting in which she was seated in a small room with Bhalla and the head of human resources, Nicole LaFlamme, the other defendant named in the lawsuit.
During the meeting, Chaung alleges, the two “badgered [her] angrily and loudly,” calling her a “liar” and telling her they planned to terminate her for her behavior. Chuang says their words became so “threatening and intimidating” that she felt physically afraid and asked if she could leave. She says LaFlamme replied, “No, you cannot leave” and then, as Chuang attempted to do so, blocked the door alongside Bhalla. Eventually, LaFlamme told her she was terminated and asked for her badge and laptop, according to the complaint.
The 17-page complaint lists four alleged violations of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, including sexual harassment, discrimination, failure to prevent harassment and retaliation. Chuang is seeking a jury trial and asking for “punitive damages” against the defendants in “an amount appropriate to punish them for their wrongful conduct.”
In a statement sent to Yahoo Lifestyle, a spokesperson for Juul denied all of Chuang’s claims. “This employee separated from the company last year,” the spokesperson wrote. “She raised these allegations several months later, and after an internal investigation, we believe that they have no merit. We are committed to providing a safe and comfortable workplace free of all forms of harassment.”
Juul declined the opportunity to comment on behalf of the two defendants in the suit, LaFlamme and Bhalla, both of whom are still currently employed by the company. LaFlamme and Bhalla — as well as ther other Juul employees mentioned in the suit (Dykes, Keller, Misra, Hatton and Ferkol) — did not respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s requests for comment.
The lawsuit is one of many to implicate the e-cigarette maker, most of which center on the claim that the company recklessly marketed to teens (which Juul denies). But Chuang is not the first former employee to bring a lawsuit against the company. In late October, her former coworker Siddharth Breja sued Juul, claiming that executives at the company knowingly sold over 1 million contaminated mint-flavored Juul pods. Like Chuang, Breja alleges he was wrongfully terminated, in his case “in retaliation for whistleblowing” and for “objecting to the contaminated pod shipment and other illegal and unsafe conduct.” A hearing for the case is set for March 11.
Breja, who was senior vice president of global finance before bringing his own lawsuit, claims in it that former CEO Kevin Burns ran the company in a “dictatorial manner,” enforcing a “reckless” and “win-at-all costs” strategy that hinged on a “culture of silence.” A spokesperson for Juul refuted all of Breja’s claims to the New York Times, calling them “meritless” and saying Breja was fired for failing to “demonstrate leadership qualities.”
Attorneys representing Chuang did not respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment. According to Chuang’s LinkedIn profile, she is now working as a program manager at a manufacturing company. Juul, now battling both regulatory pressure and legal action, hired a “chief transformation officer” in January, who said he plans to cut $1 billion in costs by the end of 2020.