Yahoo Exec Accused Of Sexual Harassment Files Defamation Counter-Suit

Prominent Yahoo executive Maria Zhang filed a defamation complaint Wednesday against a former female employee who sued her for sexual harassment and subsequent wrongful termination. In her filing, Zhang called Nan Shi’s allegations — that she forced Shi to have oral and digital sex — “outrageously false” and based on attempts to extort Yahoo.

On Friday Shi filed a suit against Zhang in a Santa Clara county court, asserting that Zhang coerced her into having sex on multiple occasions against her will. Shi claims the incidents occurred in February 2013, shortly after Zhang was hired as a principal software engineer at Yahoo and while Zhang was staying with her at her temporary Yahoo housing unit in Sunnyvale. Prior to working at Yahoo, Shi had worked for Alike, a Seattle-based startup Zhang founded and had been acquired by Yahoo.

“Zhang told [Shi] she would have a bright future at Yahoo if she had sex with her,” Shi’s complaint alleges. “She also stated she could take away everything from her including her job, stocks, and future if she did not do what she wanted.”

The lawsuit claims Zhang forced Shi “to work grueling hours and compose work emails over the weekend at the apartment, sometimes right after sex.” Shi says when she rejected Zhang’s “further advances,” Zhang downgraded her performance reviews. She also accuses Yahoo of failing to conduct a proper investigation when she reported the situation to Human Resources.

A representative for Yahoo, which is also a defendant in Shi’s suit, did not respond to a request for comment, but referred TechCrunch to a statement made to the San Jose Mercury News when Shi’s suit was first reported last week:

As we previously stated, there is absolutely no basis or truth to the allegations against Maria Zhang. Maria is an exemplary Yahoo executive, and we intend to fight vigorously to clear her name.”

Zhang’s cross-complaint diverges from Shi’s narrative.

Zhang asserts that Shi is making “such false and outrageous allegations” for one reason — money. Shortly after starting at Yahoo, Zhang says Shi’s immediate supervisor gave her a bad performance review. Zhang then assigned her a new supervisor, but she continued to receive poor reviews. 

“By March 2014, it became obvious to Shi that her job was in serious jeopardy,” Zhang’s complaint says. “Realizing that consistent negative performance feedback would likely lead to the termination of her employment and the loss of unvested stock worth potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars, Shi attempted to save her job by making complaints to Yahoo’s Human Resources department.”

Zhang says initially, Shi did not complain of sexual harassment. According to the complaint, Shi initially complained in March 2014 Zhang was a “demanding manager and “threatening her job.” The department conducted what Zhang calls a “thorough investigation,” but found no evidence of Shi’s claims, especially because she had received poor reviews from two supervisors.

In April 2014, Shi realized her “termination of employment would likely be imminent,” according to Zhang’s complaint, and told Yahoo Human Resources that Zhang had forced her to have sex. Zhang claims that never happened, and that she never had any form of sexual relationship with Shi, whether it was forced or consensual.

Zhang further asserts that Shi was unable to produce any evidence — witnesses, photographs, correspondence — of any sexual contact. Shi’s suit does not reference any evidence.

Shi claims that during the investigation Yahoo put her on an “unpaid leave of absence” before eventually firing her. But in her rebuttal, Zhang says during the investigation Shi was on paid administrative leave, and actually remained employed by Yahoo much longer than she otherwise would have been. Shi’s employment was officially terminated on July 11, according to Zhang.

In her counter-suit, Zhang claims Shi’s claims have damaged her personal reputation, particularly the claims of forced digital and oral sex. She is seeking damages from Shi in her counter-suit.