When former employee Richard Jacobs sent a demand letter alleging possible criminal behavior by the Uber team where he previously worked, Uber viewed the claims as extortion. Uber deputy general counsel Angela Padilla said Jacobs’ claims were “extortionate.” Yet Uber paid Jacobs $4.5 million ($2 million upfront, $1.5 million in stock, and an additional $1 million to consult with the company and cooperate in any investigations over the course of the next year), plus an additional $3 million to his attorney.
Criticizing Uber’s Competitive Intelligence group and the company’s intentional concealment of its practices, federal judge William Alsup offered a stern critique of Uber. From the bottom line tha tUber “withheld evidence”, Alsup continued:
I can no longer trust the words of the lawyers for Uber in this case. If even half of what is in that letter is true, it would be an injustice for Waymo to go to trial.
Alsup specifically criticized Uber’s use of a system that deleted correspondence automatically, saying this was contrary to court instructions for producing relevant documents:
The server [that Uber searched] turns out to be for dummies, that’s where the stuff that doesn’t matter shows up. The stuff that does matter is going to be in the Wickr evaporate file.
Alsup expressed shock at Uber’s practices:
You don’t get taught how to deal with this problem in law school. In 25 years of practice and 18 years in this job I have never seen such a problem.
He continued after a second day of hearings:
I’ve never seen a case where there were so many bad things that—like Uber has done in this case. So many
Alsup said he plans to tell the jury about the new findings including Uber’s concealment of its practices and intentional destruction of staff discussions:
That is going to hurt your case because any company that would set up that kind of system is as suspicious as can be. I don’t know how you are going to get around that.
Uber’s Competitive Intelligence group used surreptitious practices to communicate with others in Uber in order to avoid creating digital records that could be used in future legal disputes.
Some employees used the Wickr service, which automatically deletes communications after a preset period.
Some employees used special devices for hiding communications. These “non-attributable” devices could not be easily traced back to Uber. Reporting from a hearing, a Tweeter reported Judge Alsup asking who supplied these devices to employees. An ex-Uber employee explained that Uber used third-party vendors so that the expense would stay off of Uber’s books.
The ex-employee confirmed the purpose of these methods: “to evade, impede, obstruct, influence several ongoing lawsuits against Uber.” He said email was a last resort because the messages could be used in litigation. He continued: “There was legal training around the use of attorney-client privilege markings on written materials and the implementation of encrypted and ephemeral communications intended to destroy communications that might be considered sensitive.”
Drivers in Lagos, Nigeria filed a class action lawsuit arguing that Uber must provide them with employee benefits.
A former Uber engineer sued the company, alleging that its “stack ranking” system of evaluating employees had an unfair and disproportionate impact on women.
Bloomberg reported on research about stack ranking:
Academic researchers have found that performance rating systems like stack rankings play to managers’ unconscious — and conscious — biases. Reviewing a decade of performance reviews at a “large professional services firm,” Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, a senior research fellow at Harvard Law School, found that women were 1.4 times more likely than men to receive critical feedback in highly subjective categories.
For example, in one pair of reviews a female employee was described as having “analysis paralysis.” A man with the same behavior was praised for his careful thoughtfulness. “There is a lot of bias in the system, more than in the people,” Cecchi-Dimeglio said.
Microsoft faced similar litigation in 2015, and Goldman Sachs in 2010. Both those companies ended the practice, as did Uber before the filing of this lawsuit.
An October 2017 lawsuit alleged that Uber has discriminated against women and certain minority employees, leading them to receive reduced earnings, promotions, and benefits (including stock options and bonuses). The lawsuit argues: “In this system, female employees and employees of color are systematically undervalued compared to their male and white or Asian American peers.”
In Google’s lawsuit against Uber as to alleged theft of self-driving car technology, Uber sought to hold a hearing in camera, closed to the public. Judge Alsup concluded that Uber sought confidentiality not for any proper purpose permitted under law, but to avoid embarrassment. From the court transcript for March 26, 2017:
Mr. Gonzalez (for Uber): Your Honor, the reason why we wanted it in chambers is because of the adverse impact that we think it would have on our client. If there’s a headline tomorrow saying this guy is asserting the Fifth Amendment —
The Court: Listen, please don’t do this to me again. There’s going to be a lot of adverse headlines in this case on both sides. And I can’t stop that.
[T]he public has a right — in fact, this whole transcript, I’m going to make it public.
Details in The Verge
In a 30 minute podcast on Legal Talk Network, Uber then-General Counsel Salle Yoo remarked:
I tell my team, “We’re not here to solve legal problems. We’re here to solve business problems. Legal is our tool.”
She continued: “I am going to be supportive of innovation” — broadly indicating prioritizing innovation ahead of compliance with the law.
Bloomberg reported that then-CEO Travis Kalanick encouraged then-General Counsel Salle Yoo to create a legal department with what Bloomberg called a “spirit of rule-breaking.” In a performance review, Kalanick told Yoo she needed to be more “innovative.” Bloomberg reports that Yoo considered herself “liberated” by not having to follow “best practices,” being allowed “to do things the way I think things should be done, rather than the way other people do it.” But Bloomberg says Yoo failed to challenge Kalanick and his deputies, or raise objections to Uber’s board.