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Friday, Jan. 9, 2004

SPORTS SCOPE

Morioka vs. Major League Baseball: Not a pretty picture


In the beginning it seemed like a dream, the opportunity of a lifetime, but it ended up being more like a nightmare.

Jack Gallagher

That is how Tokyo native Juri Morioka describes her 15-month tenure, which ended last May, as an administrative assistant with Major League Baseball at its head office in New York.

In October, Morioka filed a $3.4 million lawsuit in federal court in New York against the MLB, seeking compensation for lost wages, future earnings, punitive damages and compensatory damages for emotional pain and suffering.

Despite the fact that Morioka is a Japanese citizen, the story received little attention in Japan when it broke on the eve of the World Series between the New York Yankees and Florida Marlins.

In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, Morioka detailed an incredible pattern of abuse by her supervisor, an atmosphere in the MLB International Department that she claims was overtly racist against Asians, and says that when she confronted top management with the allegations, she was fired and the whole case was covered up.

Even more provocative, are the people Morioka claims participated in the coverup. A MLB senior vice president, the head of human resources and the executive vice president of labor relations.

In an e-mail response to questions submitted by The Japan Times about Morioka's lawsuit, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations Rob Manfred wrote:

"Ms. Morioka was terminated for refusing to perform her job, despite repeated requests. She was directed to go to her work station and perform tasks within her job description and she refused to do so.

"To date, Ms. Morioka's job has not been filled. She was a disgruntled employee. We did conduct an internal investigation, the substance of which I will not discuss publicly.

"I will say that her lawsuit is entirely without merit and that, as part of our commitment to diversity in the workplace, we undertook extensive efforts to make Ms. Morioka as comfortable as possible."

Manfred concluded by commenting on the amount of damages Morioka is seeking.

"As to the $3.4 million, outrageous damage claims are a standard practice that no one takes seriously."

When asked to provide specific examples of Morioka's nonperformance on the job, the MLB declined.

As with many things in life, it started with so much promise.

Morioka answered a want ad in the New York Times in October 2001, "Bilingual Japanese, sports fan . . ." and, after a lengthy screening process with an employment agency, was hired and began working for the MLB in February 2002.

Morioka was stunned by her apparent good fortune in landing the position.

"I couldn't believe it," Morioka said by telephone from New York. "I really like baseball. It was very exciting. I was looking forward to working there and telling everybody I got the job. I thought it was going to be a great opportunity."

In addition to being hired, Morioka was also made aware of the fact that she would be a pioneer of sorts -- the first full-time Japanese employee of the MLB.

She was assigned to work for Russell Gabay, who is the executive producer for Major League Baseball International and a 20-year veteran in television, with previous stops at ESPN, NBC and HBO. Gabay, 46, is married and has two daughters.

Morioka, who went to the United States as an exchange student for her senior year of high school and later attended college in Ohio and New York, has used her bilingual skills to work for several top companies in New York.

"I had been working for major Japanese and American banks and media companies as an executive assistant, working with directors, vice chairmen, CFOs, etc., before landing the job at MLB. I also worked as a paralegal and translator/interpreter," Morioka said.

Morioka declined to provide names and references of previous employers.

"My resume looked very impressive to Mr. Gabay and that's one of the reasons why he hired me as his assistant."

The MLB declined to make Gabay available for comment.

According to Morioka, the problems began almost immediately after she started working for the MLB.

"The trouble started early on. It was unbelievable. At the beginning I was in denial, I couldn't believe this was happening. Hearing somebody hang up the telephone and say, 'F------ Japs.'

It was not only that. It was also 'F------ Koreans,' too.

"That was the kind of thing I overheard quite often."

When Morioka was hired, she was told she would be interacting with all the clubs and broadcasters."

It sounded like a perfect fit to her.

"I'm very client-oriented. That's what I thought I was hired for, but the reality was that most of the people (in the office) felt like, 'We're baseball, we rule.' "

People who work in television, both in front of and behind the camera, are often stereotyped as having big egos. Morioka says that Gabay fit this profile.

She claims Gabay actually told her: "I'm above the Yankees."

Sensing that her stay with the MLB was headed for trouble, Morioka began keeping a record of various incidents of harassment she endured.

According to the lawsuit, which paraphrases records she kept, the incidents included:

June 7, 2002: Gabay comes out of his office yelling the term "Nips."

July 19, 2002: Several MLB coworkers imitate Japanese clients accents in an insulting, offensive and stereotypical manner in the immediate vicinity of her work area.

Aug. 26, 2002: Morioka complains to Gabay about his frequent and repeated use of the terms "Jap" and "Japs" as well as his repeated proclamations that people of Japanese or Asian ancestry are "stupid" or "morons."

Morioka tells Gabay that his behavior has been so disruptive to her work environment that she has difficulty concentrating on her daily tasks.

Aug. 27, 2002: Gabay becomes very angry by Morioka's comments, states he is not a racist and threatens to have her transferred out of the International Department of the MLB.

Aug. 30, 2002: Gabay retaliates against Morioka by making a complaint to the Human Resources Department of the MLB about the quality of her work -- claiming that she was incompetent and could not keep up with her daily tasks.

End of August/beginning of Sept. 2002: Morioka explains to Human Resources that she has been emotionally distraught during the entire course of her employment at the MLB due to Gabay's behavior. Human Resources staff tells her that Gabay was properly disciplined for his behavior.

Sept. 2002: Gabay describes Morioka's overall performance as "unsatisfactory" in her six-month employee performance appraisal. Following the evaluation, Gabay spoke to Morioka in a voice and manner that is characteristically a way of speaking to a mentally handicapped individual.

Sept. 26, 2002: Gabay yells "the Japanese are f------ morons" in the immediate vicinity of her work area.

Sept. 30, 2002: Morioka responded in writing to the evaluation by explaining the conditions she had been forced to tolerate and said Gabay, "seems determined to have me terminated."

Following the unsatisfactory evaluation, Human Resources implemented an improvement plan which significantly increased Morioka's job responsibilities.

Jan. 7, 2003: The MLB holds a three-hour seminar on sexual harassment and racism for all of its management staff. Gabay attends.

March 20, 2003: During an MLB staff meeting, attended by Morioka, Gabay sneezed and another MLB employee asked him if he caught SARS while he was in Japan, to which Gabay responded: "No. I think I got yellow fever."

April 7, 2003: Morioka receives a racially offensive joke from Gabay via e-mail, involving a plane crash where an African-American woman's genital region was referred to as a "black box."

April 29, 2003: Morioka complains to Human Resources about the racially offensive joke she received via e-mail from Gabay and says he has continued to be disrespectful and insulting to people of Japanese origin.

The same day, MLB Senior Vice President Paul Archey conducts an annual appraisal meeting between Morioka and Gabay. During the meeting, Gabay becomes enraged at Morioka's accusations that he was racist toward people of Asian origin and threatened to increase her workload.

Twice during the meeting, Gabay starts yelling and Archey has to ask Gabay to calm down and at one point, make him sit down.

Shortly after the meeting, the MLB requires Morioka to be on-call for overtime work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, depending upon the needs of her superiors.

During the meeting with Gabay and Archey, Morioka receives her second six-month evaluation with her overall performance rated as "fair," which is only one level above "unsatisfactory."

May 12, 2003: Gabay receives an official memorandum from the MLB regarding the racially offensive e-mail, in which Archey states, "this is your second warning regarding similar conduct within the last year."

May 14, 2003: MLB terminates Morioka.

Morioka blames her initial negative job performance evaluation, which was done after she had worked for six months, on the fact that she is Japanese.

"I have no doubt that was the reason."

Despite having her workload boosted following her first six-month evaluation, Morioka was given no raise in salary or additional compensation by the MLB.

Morioka says she complained repeatedly to Human Resources about Gabay's behavior and that as a result the seminar on sexual harassment and racism was held.

"At that point, I felt the company had made a sincere effort to address the problem."

When asked whether other members of the International Dept. had the same type of attitude as Gabay, Morioka said, "Many people in the department had the same attitude as Russell."

Despite her complaints, Morioka says Gabay's behavior continued unabated.

Morioka says she got along fine with the MLB clients she dealt with.

"I had a great relationship with all the clubs, the pr people at the clubs, the broadcasters and foreign broadcasters. That is why I tolerated this for so long. I liked my job. I really thought that I could be useful."

When asked if it could have just been a personality conflict with some of her coworkers which led to the trouble, Morioka commented: "I really do feel that it was because I was not American and I was Japanese. I never got treated like this in my life. I thought I was going to be welcome there."

Morioka claims that despite giving her a raise two weeks before her second six-month performance evaluation, last April, Gabay went back and changed the evaluation -- after she again complained to Human Resources about his conduct.

Then, on top of that, Gabay required her to be on-call for work at all times.

It was at this point that Morioka raised the issue of the offensive e-mail joke with Human Resources.

"When I received the racially offensive e-mail on April 7, I just couldn't believe my eyes. I thought, after everything else, the e-mail was serious enough for him to be terminated."

The MLB declined to comment on whether it ever disciplined Gabay for his behavior.

Following her termination, Morioka filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in New York, which subsequently conducted an investigation into her claims.

Morioka believes that the EEOC was unable to determine what happened to her, because they didn't have sufficient information to reach a conclusion.

In its initial public response to Morioka's lawsuit, the MLB issued the following statement on Oct. 17:

"The EEOC investigated Ms. Morioka's complaint and concluded that no evidence was presented which established that MLB violated federal or state equal opportunity laws. In fact, Ms. Morioka's claims, which were fully investigated internally, are entirely without merit. Ms. Morioka was terminated for cause, and the EEOC agreed there was no basis to conclude that any inappropriate factor played a role in her termination."

Not so says Morioka, citing a letter sent to her by the EEOC, after its probe, which states:

"The EEOC issues the following determination: Based upon its investigation, the EEOC is unable to conclude that the information obtained established violations of the statutes. This does not certify that the respondent is in compliance with the statutes. No finding is made as to any other issues that might be construed as having been raised by this charge."

Furthermore, according to Morioka's attorney Peter Eikenberry, the EEOC investigation will have no bearing on her lawsuit against the MLB.

In a telephone interview from his office in New York, Eikenberry said: "Juri has a terrific case, because of the incredibly abusive treatment she endured at Major League Baseball -- where there were constant slurs such as 'dumb Japs,' etc., which did not stop despite her complaints.

"In most cases, the EEOC does not conduct an investigation and in this case it accepted Major League Baseball's version of the truth. The EEOC finding is not binding in a court procedure nor may it be introduced into evidence."

When asked if he thought there would be a settlement in Morioka's case, Eikenberry said, "Most cases are settled before trial, but it is too early to predict whether this one will be."

The MLB's contention that Morioka refused to do her job, seems hard to believe.

If so, why did it give her a raise only one month before she was fired?

And how was she able to remain employed for 15 months, if she wasn't doing her job?

Also, Morioka was screened -- at length -- by an employment agency. In the course of their investigation, wouldn't previous references have mentioned something about any past trouble?

Perhaps most disturbing of all about this saga, is Morioka's allegation that once the MLB realized the magnitude of the problem with Gabay's behavior, it tried to cover it up to prevent any further damage.

"Paul Archey and Ray Scott (head of Human Resources) both protected Mr. Gabay," Morioka stated. "I pointed this out to Rob Manfred and he simply joined them."

In the complaint filed with the court, Morioka cited Japanese clients whom Gabay repeatedly referred to as "stupid" or "morons." Among those listed was Naoko Hasegawa, a broadcasting coordinator for NHK Enterprises in New York.

With no one able to corroborate Morioka's claims, it could be a bit of an uphill battle to prove her case in court -- if the case ever gets there.

However, The Japan Times spoke to Hasegawa -- who dealt frequently with Morioka and Gabay -- and what she had to say could prove crucial to the case.

"I had a good relationship with her (Morioka) . . . sometimes trouble happens at work."

Hasegawa says that despite her belief that Morioka would not make up the allegations against Gabay, she gets along with him well.

"I have a very good relationship with him (Gabay). He's been great to me."

When asked if she ever felt any bias in dealing with Gabay because she is Japanese, Hasegawa answered "No."

When informed that her name was included in Morioka's complaint and that Gabay had allegedly referred to her in terms like "stupid" or "moron," Hasegawa stated, "That's upsetting (to hear). I didn't feel that kind of feeling from him. I don't know if it is true that he said that or not.

"I know that Russell uses bad language sometimes, but I always thought that was just his personality."

Hasegawa, who was born in Fukuoka, never personally heard Gabay make any anti-Japanese or anti-Asian comments, but says she was aware of his reputation for doing it.

"I knew he was saying that. But I didn't hear it."

When asked where she heard this, Hasegawa replied, "From Juri or other people."

When pressed on the issue, and asked if she had heard this from other employees of the MLB, Hasegawa hesitated, then said, "Actually, no. Just Juri. That is why I know that they had a problem working together."

Hasegawa, who between college and work, has lived in the United States for eight years, was very direct when asked if she thought Morioka was the type of individual who would make up these allegations against Gabay and the MLB.

"I don't think she is making up any of this. I don't think she would make it up.

"She (Morioka) is very sensitive and she has pride that she is Japanese. I think it was a personality thing. For example, maybe Russell would say something bad to me and I would just not listen to it and forget it, but maybe Juri cannot.

"Sometimes Juri is very serious. Sometimes too serious."

Shortly after Morioka filed her lawsuit against the MLB, the league received another black eye when Bill Singer, a top scout for the New York Mets, verbally harassed Kim Ng, the assistant GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers, in a bar, about her Chinese heritage.

Morioka says she was impressed by the way the Mets swiftly dealt with the situation.

Singer, a former top major league pitcher, had been working for the Mets for less than two weeks when the incident -- which he admitted to -- occurred and was summarily fired by the team for his actions.

"MLB could learn a lot from the clubs. I wonder if Mr. Gabay would have been fired if he had been working for any of the teams and not just disciplined twice for his racial remarks?"



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