A sexual harassment lawsuit by a female partner in a Silicon Valley venture capital firm has brought attention to the male-centric culture that still prevails in California’s tech industry, suggesting that blatant harassment at even the highest levels of the business world remains a problem. The lawsuit, filed in May, has already had a round of pretrial motions attempting to send the case to arbitration, and the defendants are currently appealing an order permitting the litigation to proceed.
Ellen Pao joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) in 2005 as Chief of Staff to one of the managing partners, John Doerr. In her lawsuit against the firm, she claims that she was routinely subjected to sexual harassment, followed by retaliation, by another partner, Ajit Nazre, from 2006 until he left the firm in 2011. She reportedly went on a business trip with Nazre, who was in a supervisory position over her, in February 2006. He allegedly made “inappropriate sexual approaches” during the trip, which she refused. She says that he continued to pressure her throughout the year until she gave in “on two or three occasions.” In October 2006, she says she told Nazre that she would have no further relations with him, at which point he “started a consistent pattern of retaliation.”
For a period of five years, Pao alleges that Nazre excluded her from business discussions, e-mail correspondence, and meetings; and interfered with her relationships with companies she sponsored. She says that another partner made inappropriate overtures to her as well, giving her a rather sexually explicit book called The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen and inviting her to dinner.
In December 2007, Pao says, she reported Nazri’s harassment and retaliation to two managing partners, including Doerr. She received no response, but says Nazri received a promotion from junior to senior partner shortly afterwards. At this point, Pao claims that KPCB began to retaliate against her by repeatedly refusing to give her performance reviews, moving her office, keeping her compensation low, and denying her promotions.
Pao filed a claim with California’s anti-discrimination agency and obtained approval to file suit. She brought suit in the Superior Court of California in San Francisco on May 10, 2012, alleging state law gender discrimination and retaliation claims, and a claim for failing to prevent unlawful discrimination. The state law, California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, contains protections against sexual harassment and other gender discrimination, similar to those found in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In New York, the state-level Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law also offer such protections.
KPCB brought a motion to compel arbitration of Pao’s claim, claiming that Pao signed agreements consenting to the process. Arbitration is a system of dispute resolution, in which parties present their claims to a trained arbitrator, who acts as a sort of privately-retained judge and jury. Many contracts include clauses requiring binding arbitration of disputes. Critics of mandatory arbitration say the system tends to favor employers over employees, businesses over consumers, and so forth. A court ruled that Pao is not bound by any arbitration clause, prompting a pending appeal by KPCB.
At Phillips & Associates, we represent victims of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination in New York City and surrounding areas, fighting to protect their rights at the municipal, state, and federal levels. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, contact us today online or at (212) 248-7431.
Complaint for Damages, Pao v. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, et al, Superior Court of the State of California, County of San Francisco, May 10, 2012
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