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Japanese-U.S. Firm Denies Charge : Pregnant Woman Lost Job in Clash of Cultures, Suit Claims

August 13, 1987|MARY ANN GALANTE | Times Staff Writer

An Orange County woman contends that a clash of Japanese and American cultures caused her to lose her job at Shimano American Corp. in Irvine because of her pregnancy.

In a lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court, Dawna L. Buffington, a former Shimano supervisor, says her boss "chastised her" and informed her that "Japanese customs regarding pregnancy of female workers were different than those of Americans."

So different, Buffington's suit says, that she was told: "The Japanese representatives of Shimano would be very uncomfortable with a pregnant woman among them during the working hours."

The suit seeks $400,000 in damages.

Buffington's allegations were denied by a Shimano representative, however, and a Japanese business spokesman was skeptical about her claims of mistreatment.

According to the lawsuit, Buffington was hired last September by Shimano American, the U.S. subsidiary of Shimano Industrial Co. Ltd., a leading Japanese manufacturer of bicycle parts and fishing tackle. The parent company had 1986 sales of $350 million, of which about a third were generated in the United States.

Buffington was one of about 85 employees in the Irvine office, which serves as Shimano's American headquarters, warehouse and distribution complex.

A company spokesman denied Buffington's allegations. "That's just not the way we operate. . . . We obviously don't feel we've done anything wrong or we wouldn't be employing a lawyer to represent us," said Russ Johnson, Shimano American's assistant director of communications.

The company's lawyer could not be reached for comment.

But at least one authority on Japanese culture also expressed some doubt about Buffington's claims. "No way. Not even in Japan," said Hiroshi Matsuoka, executive director of the Japanese Business Assn. in Los Angeles. "You can't avoid pregnant women. You have to live with them."

Matsuoka added that "no company in the world" would fire a pregnant woman.

Boss Declines Comment

Moreover, most of the employees at Shimano's Irvine headquarters are Americans, according to Johnson. "In the whole (U.S.) company, maybe 10 guys are Japanese," he said. He acknowledged, however, that Japanese representatives occasionally visit the Orange County office.

Buffington's lawsuit states that the allegedly discriminatory remarks were made by her boss, Fred Archer, vice president of Shimano's fishing tackle division. Archer, a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment on it.

Buffington maintains that her trouble at work began when she told Archer she was pregnant in late October--shortly after conceiving and about six weeks after she was hired.

The lawsuit states that she wanted to continue working as supervisor of the fishing tackle division and as Archer's acting secretary but was "bluntly and rancorously" told by her boss, "We can't fire you because you are pregnant, but there are other ways."

"Almost immediately," the complaint states, the company began "a consistent and unrelenting pattern of demeaning plaintiff's job performance and finding fault" with her work.

Archer also "intimidated and threatened" her, Buffington contends in the suit, and began using "voluminous and frequent profanity" and making "obscene references" to offend her.

Retroactive Pay Cut

Three months later, in mid-March--"without good reason or any investigation"--Buffington was demoted to assistant supervisor and given a retroactive pay cut from $21,900 to $19,900 per year. At the time, she was told the demotion and pay cut reflected a recent job review and a restructuring of her division, the lawsuit states.

But "in fact, defendants conspired to create a false and sham job review" to justify the demotion, according to the complaint.

Five days after the demotion, the feud ended abruptly. Buffington "was coerced and forced to resign her employment" on March 16, the lawsuit states.

An attorney representing Buffington said that even if her experience is not typical of Japanese attitudes, her boss was speaking for Shimano. "We can only surmise that Archer was voicing what he felt to be the position of the company," said Joseph E. DuBois of Newport Beach's Good, Wildman, Hegness & Walley. "We believe it was all just a subterfuge . . . to create intolerable working conditions."

The lawsuit seeks $100,000 in actual damages and $300,000 in punitive damages for breach of employment contract, bad faith and emotional distress.

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