Settlement Delivers Long-Overdue Accountability for Discrimination at Department of Commerce

Attorneys for Sherry Chen, a Chinese American scientist with the National Weather Service, today announced a historic settlement in two lawsuits seeking accountability for her wrongful prosecution and termination from her job. 

In 2012, the Commerce Department’s internal security unit, known as the Investigations and Threat Management Service (ITMS), began unlawfully investigating Ms. Chen as part of a broad pattern of discrimination directed at Chinese Americans, leading to her baseless arrest and prosecution by the FBI and Justice Department. ITMS was officially disbanded last year, following a Senate report detailing how the unit had become a “rogue, unaccountable police force” that operated outside the law and “opened frivolous investigations on a variety of employees without evidence suggesting wrongdoing.” 

The settlement is one of the largest paid to an individual plaintiff in Commerce Department history. Ms. Chen will receive $550,000 from the Commerce Department and an annuity from the U.S. government valued at $1.25 million over 10 years. The Commerce Department will host a private meeting between Ms. Chen and a senior National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official, where she plans to discuss wrongdoing at multiple levels of the agency and the importance of antidiscrimination reforms. The Commerce Department will also provide Ms. Chen with a letter acknowledging her extensive accomplishments during her years of service as a government hydrologist. 

“The government’s investigation and prosecution of me was discriminatory and unjustified,” said Sherry Chen. “The Commerce Department is finally being held responsible for its wrongdoing and for the conduct of its illegal security unit, which has had a devastating impact on my life and the lives of so many other federal employees. No one else should have to endure this injustice.”

Based on ITMS’s improper investigation of Ms. Chen, the Justice Department charged her with making false statements to government investigators and unlawfully downloading data from a restricted government database. The government’s unfounded allegations rested on Ms. Chen’s use of a shared, office-wide password to access a database relevant to her work. The Justice Department eventually dropped all charges in 2015, but not before Ms. Chen was publicly arrested in front of her colleagues and faced 25 years in prison and $1 million in fines. The Commerce Department also fired Ms. Chen from the job she had worked at for years. After a federal administrative judge found that her termination was unlawful, and that Ms. Chen had been the victim of a “gross injustice,” the department appealed and placed her on indefinite leave. That appeal has been pending since 2018 before the Merit Systems Protection Board, an agency that hears claims from federal employees.

Today’s settlement marks the end of the Merit Systems Protection Board litigation and a separate federal lawsuit against the U.S. government, filed in 2019 by Ms. Chen’s counsel, Peter Toren and Michele Young. The American Civil Liberties Union and Cooley LLP joined as co-counsel in that suit last year. Stephen A. Simon, partner with Tobias, Torchia & Simon, represents Ms. Chen before the Merit Systems Protection Board.

“Ms. Chen’s historic settlement is a victory for her and for Chinese American communities,” said Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “It makes clear that profiling and discrimination are unacceptable, and that the government will be held to account.”

Additional statements from Ms. Chen’s attorneys are below:

“For years, the Commerce Department refused to take responsibility for destroying Ms. Chen’s career,” said John Hemann, partner at Cooley LLP. “Today’s settlement is a win for the rule of law and helps to ensure that rogue units like ITMS will not be allowed to take root.”

“Today, a great blow was struck against bigotry and for the rights of Asian Americans, as the government was forced to reckon with and be held accountable for the devastating damage to an award-winning scientist’s life,” said Michele Young, Managing Partner at Michele Young Co., LPA and Counsel to Gregory S. Young Co., LPA. “After a ten-year battle, from Congress to the Courts to Commerce, finally, there is justice. Sherry patriotically fought not only for herself, but to secure the rights of all Asian Americans. It was a privilege to be on this dream team that fought day and night for this moment.”

“Ms. Chen’s ordeal has lasted more than ten years,” said Peter Toren, counsel for Ms. Chen. “She bravely persevered in this fight, inspiring countless others who have experienced similar forms of discrimination."

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