Toyota CEO Charged with Sexual Harassment, resigns

It is one of the world's largest corporations and produces some of the best-selling cars in America, yet Toyota Motor Corporation is oddly out of step in handling alleged sexual misconduct in the workplace, according to a just-filed lawsuit.

An employee in the New York corporate office of Toyota Motor North America, Inc., the North American arm of Japan's Toyota Motor Corporation, accuses its chief executive Hideaki Otaka, of repeated aggressive sexual advances that occurred while she worked for him as an executive assistant in 2005.

The suit, filed by Ziegler, Ziegler & Associates, LLP in New York State Supreme Court, was brought by Sayaka Kobayashi, 42, who was plucked from her job in Toyota's corporate planning department in March 2005 to become personal assistant to Mr. Otaka. Starting last September, Ms. Kobayashi contends she was subjected to several sexual assaults by Mr. Otaka, who boasted of his marital infidelities and continued to pursue a physical relationship with his assistant even after she rebuffed him.

Ms. Kobayashi alleges that Mr. Otaka forced himself on her — in a Washington D.C. hotel and in New York's Central Park. She also claims he continuously pressured her to travel with him, at one point instructing Toyota North America employees to book a hotel reservation under her name even after she hesitated to do so for fear of another sexual assault.

Mr. Otaka's relentless pursuit of his assistant took a toll. "Nowdays, I come to work with anxiety and pray that Mr. Otaka will not ask me to accompany him to another lunch, another dinner, another business trip or make comments about my personal life," she wrote to a senior vice president at Toyota North America late last fall. "Mr. Otaka rarely checks my availability or willingness to attend such functions, and if I decline, his cynical remarks follow." Ironically, as chief executive of Toyota's North American operations, overseeing some 31,500 employees in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, Mr. Otaka was the signatory of the company's handbook outlining a no-tolerance policy toward "unwelcome sexual conduct." In a bizarre breach of protocol, the senior vice president who received Ms. Kobayashi's complaint advised her to confront her boss in a private one-on-one meeting. Rather than launch an investigation or acknowledge that a formal charge of sexual harassment had been lodged, the executive informed Ms. Kobayashi that he would tell Mr. Otaka that her "jealous" boyfriend had complained about Mr. Otaka's conduct — a subterfuge he used "in order to avoid upsetting (Mr.) Otaka," the complaint alleges.

The lawsuit is especially revealing of the extreme subservience women can still face in some large companies. It is a world in which a male boss can summon his female assistant to his hotel room at 10 o'clock at night, demand that she escort him to social events, and chastise her for not properly thanking him for his efforts to "advance her career" through his personal attentions.

"There are many disturbing aspects to this case, not least that the chief executive of a company that is the U.S. presence of one of world's largest auto makers willfully preyed on a junior employee and would then equate her unequivocal rejection of him as merely a lack of courtesy," said Christopher Brennan, an attorney with the law firm Ziegler, Ziegler & Associates, LLP in Manhattan, which represents Ms. Kobayashi.

"No less upsetting is the cavalier way in which Toyota North America responded to the serious charge of harassment by its CEO," added Scott Ziegler, managing partner of Ziegler, Ziegler. He noted that Toyota not only failed to conduct a formal investigation, but ultimately transferred Ms. Kobayashi back to her old planning job as its perceived solution to the problem.

"Rather than view Mr. Otaka as a threat to Ms. Kobayashi and others, Toyota decided to strip our client of her job and reassign her, which is a clear act of retaliation for having brought the harassment to light," Mr. Ziegler said.

Still employed by Toyota North America, Ms. Kobayashi is currently on medical leave. She is asking the court to take corrective action of what she perceives are Toyota's unlawful employment practices. She also seeks compensatory and punitive damages against both Toyota Motor Corporation and Toyota North America, including damages stemming from Toyota's negligent hiring and retention of Mr. Otaka, whose boastful philandering was evidently no secret among company management, according to the complaint.

The complaint notes that Mr. Otaka, 65, a Toyota employee since 1965, was mysteriously removed from Toyota Motor Corporation's board of directors several years ago, before being reassigned to his CEO posting of Toyota Motor North America in 2004.

On the same day that he was served with a copy of the lawsuit, Mr. Otaka announced that he was leaving his post as president and CEO of Toyota North America. PRN Newswire

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