Top App Reviewer Sues Apple for Unjust Termination After Approving Application ‘Critical of the Chinese Government’

By Neil Campbell | January 7, 2021
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
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Apple Store Worker Censored
The shadow of a man is cast on the wall of an Apple store as he uses his mobile phone in Beijing on August 26, 2019. (Image: by GREG BAKER / AFP)

An iOS App Reviewer alleges he was wrongfully dismissed by Apple for approving an app created by a Chinese dissident who fled China in 2014 to seek asylum in the United States. 

The app was created by Guo Media, a company established by Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire who is wanted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on allegations of criminal activity. Guo has also launched two projects with Steve Bannon, GTV Media Group, and G News.

According to the suit, Guo regularly uses Guo Media to “publicize claims of corruption against Chinese government officials and members of the Chinese Communst Part. [sic]”

Pham called out his managers, stating that the media company App “publishes valid claims of corruption against Chinese government officials and the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore should not be taken down.” He said removing the app “under pressure from the Chinese government amounts to censorship.”

The suit, filed in November in the Superior Court of Santa Clara, California, claims that the plaintiff, Trieu Pham, was one of the top three members of Apple’s reviewer team. The team was given a quota to “accept, reject, or hold 50 to 100 apps per day.” Pham, who had a personal quota of 80 apps per day, or approximately one every six minutes, often reviewed between 120 and 180 apps per day and was lauded in his annual performance reviews. 

Guo Media (Image: Twitter)

Pham alleges that after he approved the Guo Media app, the CCP contacted Apple and demanded the app be removed from the app store. The app was also reviewed by, according to the suit, “a series of other Apple employees, including three Chinese App Reviewers, yet none of them were disciplined for approval of the App as Plaintiff Pham was.”

Continual harassment

The allegations state Pham was under continual harassment since September of 2017 when he was transferred to a new team under manager Richard Chipman. He was often singled out and publicly humiliated by his supervisor. When Pham filed a complaint with Brandon Wied, an Apple Human Resources Business Partner, no action was taken by Apple and Pham’s work environment became even more toxic. 

As tensions escalated, Apple launched an audit of Pham’s reviews, calling several of them erroneous and issued a “Documented Coaching Plan” (DCP) in September of 2018. Pham was offered a chance to issue a rebuttal to the audit. He did. “Pham was unable to determine any decisions that were accurately classified as errors on his part.” Several of the purported errors in the audit were reversed as a result. 

Pham alleges that he was subsequently called into a meeting to discuss the Guo Media App with multiple Apple supervisors and managers. He was told that the App was “critical of the Chinese government, and, therefore, should be removed from the App Store.”

Pham called out his managers, stating that the media company App “publishes valid claims of corruption against Chinese government officials and the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore should not be taken down.” He said removing the app “under pressure from the Chinese government amounts to censorship.”

After the meeting, Pham was confronted by Chipman where he again stated that Guo was entitled to publish his opinions. Pham mentioned his experience surrounding the Guo Media App to other employees and managers within Apple in the following weeks. 

Pham was on stress-related medical leave between Oct. 21, 2018 and Feb. 15, 2019 at the recommendation of his doctor. He continued his employment until March 18 when he was given a memorandum from Chipman terminating his employment. The cause cited in the memo was failure to “successfully meet the objectives and expectations” and failure to “meet other Apple standards” of a position he successfully held as a top performer for four and a half years. 

Political discrimination claim

The suit’s cause of action cited various grounds, including national origin discrimination and medical condition discrimination. These were challenged by Apple’s lawyers in a pretrial motion. Both causes were thrown out by Judge Socrates Peter Manoukian. 

However, the case was allowed to proceed under a political discrimination claim.

Judge Manoukian stated: “For both discrimination and retaliation, a plaintiff must demonstrate some discriminatory/retaliatory intent. In other words, the alleged discrimination and retaliation (adverse action) must be because of or linked to plaintiff’s engagement in some protected activity; here, plaintiff Pham’s engagement or participation in political activity or affiliation.

“…plaintiff Pham’s allegations in the [Amended Complaint] are sufficient to establish defendant Apple’s awareness that plaintiff engaged in political activity prior to plaintiff Pham’s termination. Plaintiff Pham must ultimately prove some causal link between his engagement in protected activity and his termination…”

Pham is still awaiting the opportunity to prove this causal link in court. In his focus on discrimination, the judge has changed the emphasis of the case to bear upon individual liberties instead of emphasizing an Apple employee’s reasonable right to advocate that a news app should be free from censorship on the Apple App Store. 

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