Uber faces big legal threats

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Perhaps most salient is the recent release of Uber’s workplace culture investigations, one of which resulted in the dismissal of at least 20 employees. Another probe resulted in a 13-page list of recommendations for overhauling the company.

The company investigated 215 claims: 54 of discrimination, 47 of sexual harassment, 45 of unprofessional behavior, 33 of bullying, 19 of other harassment, 13 of retaliation, 3 of physical security and 1 wrongful termination claim.

While Uber has taken steps to make sure these incidents don’t repeat themselves, sexual harassment does not work like bankruptcy, said Phil Bezanson, white collar partner at Bracewell.

“Just because they are doing their best going forward, doesn’t erase liability for things they have done in the past,” Bezanson said. He said potential litigants may feel emboldened to file a lawsuit after seeing the results of the investigation.

“I do a lot of harassment training for companies,” said Kate Bischoff of tHRive Law & Consulting. “Sometimes after that training, the HR department gets complaints, people saying, ‘I didn’t want to stick my neck out, but now I know that it’s a big deal.’ I don’t know if litigation comes out of that …. We might see more come out of Uber.”

Bischoff said a lot depends on meeting various statutes of limitation, both at the state level and at the federal level under Title VII and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Other factors are whether the company took “timely and appropriate action” on the claims, and whether the interactions were between co-workers or with managers. There’s also the option for “commissioners charge,” a different way of handling such cases.

It gets even more complicated when one considers arbitration agreements — a very common way for employers to keep legal matters private — and a release of claims that employees may sign when they resign, freeing their former employer from legal responsibility.

Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it requires those documents, but Brooke Schneider, an associate in the Employment practice at Withers Bergman, said exiting employees can refuse to sign those agreements, or use them to negotiate more severance. Plus, those can be harder to enforce in the case of class action claims, she said.

At least one former employee has already been trying to file a claim. Documents from the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing show a former worker, whose name has been redacted from the document, filed a “right to sue” claim against Uber.

The document says:

Beginning in late 2015, a number of female colleagues sought his intervention regarding alleged sex-based discrimination and harassment they were suffering at the hands of a male supervisor. On several occasions, [redacted] raised these concerns with Uber`s HR department. Instead of investigating the allegations of discrimination and harassment and taking appropriate corrective action, HR told that ‘we get a lot of phone calls from employees that we don`t always act on.’
Shortly thereafter, was subjected to a retaliatory investigation, resulting in his termination on or about March 15, 2016.

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