Silicon Valley Gender Discrmination Lawsuit

First published at Slate.com, March 2015


Ellen Pao, now serving as the interim CEO of Reddit, is suing her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, of gender discrimination because it failed to promote her during her time there and fired her when she complained in 2012. The ongoing trial, as Mother Jones discovered, is a fountain of hilarious details about life in the upper echelons of the tech world: $300 board games about excelling in business, confusing corporate jargon that sounds ridiculous in a courtroom setting, discussions of the Playboy Mansion on private jets, and debates about the difference between “cocky” and “confident.” At one point, the court reporter had to ask about the spelling of “Klout,” a detail that will likely find its way into the third season of Silicon Valley.

But despite all the goofiness, the question at the heart of the trial is one that will resonate with plenty of women who aren’t vying for offices in the “power corridor” of a VC firm: How do you determine what is and isn’t gender discrimination in a world where you’re competing with men on decidedly subjective terms? Pao is arguing that she didn’t get promoted because a sexist, bro-y environment didn’t make room for women. The defense, however, is arguing that it wasn’t her gender but her inability to meet the firm’s standards on frustratingly vague measures such as “thought leadership.”

Of course, men tend to get judged very differently than women on a lot of those subjective measurements. Nitasha Tiku at the Verge explains how this is playing out in court:

Another question yesterday concerned Schlein’s notes on a potential male hire from 2011 that seemed to imply the candidate’s “cockiness” was an attribute. (Many of Pao’s performance reviews called her arrogant and brash, noting her “sharp elbows,” where similar aggression in partners like Chien was not a cause for concern.) Schlein was asked to explain when cockiness is a good thing. “If you’re cocky and then by the time you’re done talking to somebody and they don’t like you,” it’s the wrong kind of cocky, he said.
The problem is that the line not to cross—when a person’s confidence becomes a turnoff—is very different depending on gender. Similarly, it’s understandable that VC firms want to hire people who fit the mold of “thought leaders.” But unfortunately, that mold is male-shaped.

Pao’s apparently sole defender at the firm, senior partner John Doerr, took the stand Wednesday and testified that he felt that the VC world is not doing enough to recruit and develop women, but admitted that he felt Pao was not a “team player.” One of the interesting tidbits that came out was an audio recording of Doerr talking about the personalities of the people he liked investing in, as reported by Wired:

At one point in the trial, Pao’s attorney played an audio clip of a conversation between Doerr and Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital, another industry star, recorded during a May 2008 meeting of the National Venture Capital Association. In the clip, Doerr says it was “very clearly male nerds who had no social or sex lives” and who were dropouts of Harvard or Stanford who were likely to succeed as some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. “When I see that pattern coming in … it’s very easy to decide to invest,” Doerr said.
Part of Doerr’s attempts to help Pao during this time involved hiring her social and speech coaches to make her more likable. It’s hard not to sense a double standard here, where “male nerds” without the social skills to build “social or sex lives” are doing so well, but women are expected to work hard on their likability. Is it enough for Pao to prove her accusations of gender discrimination in the absence of more concrete performance measurements? On that, we will have to wait and see.


A hard and fast rule that all job applicants must have a high school diploma can get you in trouble.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has published new rules about how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to people without a high school diploma. Immediately rejecting someone for lacking a high school diploma could be considered discrimination. At first, this sounds like a terrifying and ridiculous rule, but it’s much more nuanced than it first seems. As long as an employer is aware of the rule and how it works, there shouldn’t be any issue (you don’t have to hire someone who isn’t qualified).

The rule has to do with people who did not complete high school because of some disability that prevented them from doing so. If you require a high school diploma to be hired for a job, and an applicant tells you that they were unable to get a high school diploma because of a disability, then all this rule means is you should allow the applicant to show some other evidence proving that they are qualified.

It’s still your decision who to hire, and you can choose another candidate if they are more qualified or simply a better fit for your organization. What’s important though is to give everyone a chance to prove their qualifications, instead of simply rejecting an applicant out of hand solely because they don’t have a diploma.

In practice, this won’t actually affect smart businesses much at all (since just allowing someone a chance to prove qualifications in other ways is a pretty minor accommodation), but it could hurt businesses who are unaware of the new rule. Luckily, you now know how this works, and so you know how to avoid getting in trouble with the EEOC.

Read more about this new rule here:



In a January 11, 2012 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that under the “ministerial exception” to employment discrimination laws, grounded in the First Amendment, a “called” teacher fired by a Lutheran school could not challenge her termination as a violation of the American With Disabilities Act (“the ADA”).

The Plaintiff, Cheryl Perich, was employed as a teacher at a school run by Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Under the Synod’s rules, there are two types of teachers: “called” teachers and “lay” teachers. Although both types of teachers perform basically the same duties, called teachers must complete a course of theoretical study at a Lutheran college, pass an oral examination by a faculty committee, and be accepted by the church’s congregation as a called teacher. The teacher then receives the formal title “Minister of Religion, Commissioned.” Lay teachers are only hired by schools in the Synod when called teachers are not available.

Perich became a called teacher, and was employed by Hosanna-Tabor for a number of years. She then was diagnosed with narcolepsy, and took a medical leave of absence. When her physician cleared her to return to work, however, her employer advised her that a lay teacher had already been hired to finish out the year, and that she could not return at this time. The congregation of the church voted to offer her a “peaceful release” from her call, which included paying a portion of her health insurance premiums in return for her resignation. Perich refused to resign. She hired an attorney and demanded that she be reinstated in her position. Hosanna-Tabor responded by telling her she would likely be fired if she wouldn’t resign. She said she intended to “assert her legal rights,” and was terminated immediately thereafter.

The EEOC filed a lawsuit on behalf of Perich claiming that she had been wrongly terminated in violation of the ADA based on her disability, and in retaliation for exercising her rights under the ADA. Hosanna-Tabor argued that under the First Amendment the courts could not interfere with the employment relationship between a religious institution and one of its ministers.

The First Amendment provides, in relevant part, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” According to Hosanna-Tabor, Perich had been fired for a religious reason – namely, her threat to sue the church, which was inconsistent with the Synod’s belief that disputes between Christians should be resolved internally.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court did not focus on whether the decision to terminate Perich was based on the purported violation of the Synod’s alleged religious tenet of resolving disputes internally, or whether she was terminated due to her disability. Rather, the Court held that analysis irrelevant, because “[r]equring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By employing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause [of the First Amendment], which protects a religious group’s right to shape it’s own faith and mission through it’s appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause [of the First Amendment], which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.”

The Supreme Court concluded: The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministe­rial exception bars such a suit.” In reaching it’s decision, the Court rejected arguments that term “minister” should be more narrowly defined to include only the head of a religious organization.

The interesting thing about this case is that it did not involve a direct conflict between discrimination law and church doctrine. It was not, for example, a challenge to the right of the Catholic church or an Orthodox Jewish seminary to ordain only men as priests and rabbis, respectively. Nor did it involve the right of a religious school to hire only individuals of the same faith. Rather, the factual circumstances in this case centered on whether a disabled employee could be refused reinstatement and ultimately fired under circumstances which, in the secular world, would constitute a violation of the ADA.

Indeed, the EEOC argued in this case that such a decision would open to door to widespread employment discrimination, including possible violations of everything from Whistleblower statutes protecting those who expose illegal activity, to child labor laws.

The Court dismissed those arguments as unduly alarmist, noting “[w]e express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tor­tious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise.”


The phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’ doesn’t just apply to the computer business, where it’s long been recognized that if you input faulty data into a computer program, it will process that information and yield a predictably faulty result. Likewise, an impartial decision-maker can still subject your company to liability for violation of one of the federal employment discrimination laws if their hiring or firing decision was based on “facts” or “opinions” that were tainted by another employee’s discriminatory intent.

A March 2011 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Staub v. Proctor Hospital, describes this as the “cat’s paw” theory of discrimination, and in the nine months since that decision was rendered it has been relied upon by federal courts throughout the country in allowing discrimination clams to move forward even though the actual decision-maker was admittedly unbiased. In a nutshell, the “cat’s paw” theory allows a plaintiff to prove his or her case by demonstrating that the otherwise impartial decision was tainted by discriminatory animus on the part of the plaintiff’s supervisor. The name is derived from a fable in which a monkey persuades a cat to reach into the fire to retrieve chestnuts. The cat burns its paws, and the money makes off with the chestnuts, unscathed.

In Staub, a case arising under USERRA (the federal law that protects members of the armed forces from discrimination in employment based on their military service), a supervisor fabricated a disciplinary action, based on the supervisor’s animosity toward the military obligations of the employee, who was a member of the U.S. Army Reserve. The employee’s file was later reviewed by an HR manager, who made the decision to terminate the employee without researching the underlying merits of the disciplinary action. The employee, Straub, filed a grievance about the dismissal, claiming that his boss had fabricated the disciplinary action because he was angry that Straub’s military reservist obligations interfered with scheduling in the department. The HR manager, however, failed to investigate that allegation, and refused to reconsider the termination of employment. A jury found in favor of Straub, but the case was reversed on appeal due to the lack of any intentional discrimination by the HR manager who made the firing decision. Straub then appealed to the Supreme Court, and won.

The Supreme Court held that the HR manager’s lack of intent to discriminate – and lack of knowledge that the underlying disciplinary action was contrived – did not insulate the company from liability for wrongful termination in violation of USERRA.

The decision is Straub is not limited to USERRA cases. Rather, the “cat’s paw” approach it articulates has been used uniformly by federal courts in all types of employment discrimination cases.

The best approach for an employer is not to make a hasty termination decision. If you are the decision maker and you don’t have personal knowledge of the alleged misconduct by the employee, you should investigate the facts before making the decision to terminate. Make sure your disciplinary forms provide a space for employee comments on any write-up, and that there is an internal reporting procedure for employees to follow if they believe they are the victims of discrimination.


Holiday office parties are a great morale booster but can also get your company in hot water. Follow these tips for a fun event that doesn’t unnecessarily expose you to a risk of liability.

(1) Social Host Liability. The problem: If an employee leaving your function is involved in a DUI causing bodily injury or property damage, you could be held liable. The solution: Limit alcohol consumption. Suggestions include having the event earlier in the day, offering lots of alternative non-alcoholic beverages, provide food, don’t have an unlimited open bar. Be alert, and if an employee seems to be under the influence, have someone drive them home.

(2) Sexual Harassment. The problem: People speak more freely in an informal, party atmosphere, especially if alcohol is served. “Jokes” get out of hand, and can be misinterpreted. The solution: Remind all supervisors prior to the party that inappropriate comments and interactions with employees will not be tolerated. If you or another manager sees or overhears something inappropriate, step in immediately to diffuse the situation (ignoring it gives the appearance that you are condoning it). Suggestions include making the party a family event (if spouses, significant others, and kids are in attendance, inappropriate behavior is less likely to occur), plan appropriate activities, have a definite beginning and ending to the festivities, and limit alcohol consumption.

(3) Discrimination. The problem: Employees with different religious beliefs may feel left out, and later use the party as an example of the company’s intolerance for their belief system. In addition, well-meaning gift spoofs can backfire when they focus on stereotypes about age, race, religion, disability or gender. The solution. Be inclusive. Suggestions include delivering a speech to employees that mentions a variety of religious and ethnic holidays and wishes everyone well, in printed announcements refer to the event as a “Holiday Party” rather than a “Christmas Party” or “Hanukkah Party” or “Kwanza Party,” etc., include decorations that are representative of different traditions, and solicit employee suggestions in planning the event. If you receive a complaint, take it seriously and listen to what the employee has to say. Discourage “gag” gifts that could be perceived as offensive.

The best advice is for you to be a good role model. You set the tone for how employees are expected to conduct themselves at an office party, and they will be looking to you to take the lead.


Firing an employee because they are severely overweight violates the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendment Act of 2009 (“the ADAAA”), according to a decision by a federal district court in Louisiana on December 6, 2011, denying an employer’s motion for summary judgment. The EEOC brought the case on behalf of Lisa Harrison, an employee who weighed 400 lbs when she was hired and weighed 527 lbs when she was fired, allegedly because her employer thought her excessive weight limited her ability to perform her job.

This is one of only a few court cases to tackle this issue since the ADA was amended in 2009, expanding the definition of an impairment that constitutes a disability. Under the new regulations, the definition of impairment does not include weight that is within a “normal range” unless it is the result of a physiological disorder. The EEOC (which investigates employment discrimination claims), states in its compliance manual for employers that although “being overweight, in and of itself, is not generally an impairment, . . . severe obesity, which has been defined as body weight more than 100% over the norm, is clearly an impairment.” The EEOC has also noted that other recognized disabilities, such as diabetes, hypertension or thyroid disorders, often go hand-in-hand with obesity.

Recently, the EEOC filed another obesity case in federal court in Texas against BAE Systems, Inc., alleging that the company fired employee Ronald Kratz, II, from his job as a material handler because he was morbidly obese. No ruling has been entered yet in that case.

It seems clear, however, that we can expect a growing number of obesity discrimination cases to be filed under the ADAAA. Some cases will involve individuals who clearly fit the definition of severe obesity. Whether the law applies in other cases, where the employee is simply overweight, will hinge on whether or not the employee’s weight is a result of an underlying physiological disorder. And still others will involve “perceived disability” – the law also protects individuals who, although they are not actually disabled, are discriminated against by their employer because their employer regarded them as having a disability. Accordingly, if a supervisor assumes that an overweight person is substantially limited in the ability to perform their job and discriminates against the employee on that basis, your company could be liable under the ADAAA regardless of whether the employee’s weight problem actually was severe enough to qualify as a disability.

More than one-third (33.8%) of Americans are obese, according to a study released by the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) this year. And the number has been increasing steadily over the past 20 years. See http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html. The CDC measures obesity using height and weight to calculate a person’s body mass index (“BMI”). An adult with a BMI over 25 is considered overweight. If their BMI is 30 or higher they are considered obese. For example, an individual who is 5’9” and weighs 169 lbs. is overweight, according to the CDC. And if they weight 203 lbs. or more, they are obese. See http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/defining.html.

What does this mean for your business? It means roughly one-third of your workforce (and one-third of your job applicants) fall into the definition of obese. Those individuals may or may not be actually considered disabled under the ADAAA. But remember – even if they are not severely obese, they still may be protected under one of two other ADAAA qualifiers: (1) if their excessive weight is a result of a physiological disorder (not something you’ll be inquiring about during a job interview); or (2) if you perceive them to have a weight-based disability.

The bottom line: although weight is not a “protected class” like race, sex, age, national origin and religion under Title VII, it is being increasingly recognized by the courts as a disability under the ADAAA, a law which prohibits discrimination against individuals based on their disability. And the EEOC has made it abundantly clear that it views obesity as the new frontier for enforcement.

The best practice is to make sure all hiring and supervisory personnel in your organization are instructed not to make any employment decisions based on an individual’s weight or any stereotypes about overweight workers. Of course, employees must be able to perform the actual physical requirements of the job, but you should steer clear of making assumptions about an individual’s ability based on obesity. And employee requests for reasonable accommodations based on weight should be taken seriously.


On Monday, June 29, the Supreme Court decided a hotly debated case attempting to reconcile the dual prohibition in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act against “disparate treatment” discrimination and “disparate impact” discrimination. Disparate treatment discrimination is the intentional different treatment of an individual or group of individuals in the workplace based on their race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Disparate impact discrimination occurs when a facially neutral employment practice has a disproportionally negative effect on the members of one of these protected classes. Title VII also provides, however, that liability for disparate impact discrimination does not exist if the employer can show that its practice was “job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.”

An example of the type of policy that has been upheld in prior cases under the disparate impact analysis would be weight and height requirements for firefighters – although those minimum requirements have a disparate impact on female job applicants, they are job related and consistent with business necessity, as the job requires the physical ability to carry an unconscious person out of a burning building. An example of a policy that failed the disparate impact analysis was a particular employer’s requirement that all job applicants have a high school diploma. This policy disproportionately eliminated minority applicants, but there was no evidence that having graduated high school bore any relationship to the ability to perform the job duties.

The case decided today, Ricci v. DeStefano, involved the use of a written and oral test to determine the eligibility of firefighters in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, for promotion. Under the City’s rules, an available promotion to captain or lieutenant could only be offered to individuals with the top three highest scores. The City and the consulting firm it hired to develop the test apparently went to great lengths to design a test that had content relevant to the job, and was nondiscriminatory. Nonetheless, when the test results were in, a disproportionate percentage of black and Hispanic employees taking the test scored lower than white employees taking the test. A public debate ensued and, ultimately, the City threw out the test results to avoid violating the disparate impact prohibitions of Title VII. A group of white and Hispanic employees who received high scores on the test and would likely have been eligible for promotion filed suit, claiming that discarding the test results based solely on a statistical analysis of the racial outcome constituted disparate treatment discrimination against them.

The U.S. Supreme Count (in a narrow 5-4 decision) held that by throwing out the test results the City failed to correctly apply Title VII’s disparate impact analysis – specifically, whether the test was job related and consistent with business necessity. After reviewing the testimony and other evidence presented at trial as to the content of the test and the steps undertaken by the consulting company to create it, the Court concluded that the test was job related and that there was no equally valid, less discriminatory alternative that the City had refused to adopt. Accordingly, in the words of the Court, there was no “strong basis in the evidence” to conclude that the City would have been liable for disparate impact discrimination if it had allowed the test results to stand. Therefore, the City’s conduct amounted to disparate treatment discrimination against the firefighters whose high scores were disregarded.

The challenge for employers in the aftermath of this decision is to find a balance between eliminating facially neutral policies that have a disparate impact on minority workers without inviting allegations that the very act of removing such policies itself discriminates against nonminority workers based on race. Great care should be taken to avoid implementing any employment practices that could have a disparate impact in the first place. Of course, as the City of New Haven discovered, it’s not always possible to predict whether a disparate impact will occur.

The financial consequences of a misstep can be devastating to a business. The New Haven firefighters test at issue in the case was administered to employees in 2003. The results were thrown out shortly thereafter, and six years of costly litigation ensued.


A Silicon Valley engineering firm is paying $168,000 in damages and amending its anti-harassment policy to include the playing of music with offensive lyrics, as part of the settlement of a racial harassment case filed by the EEOC.

According to the EEOC’s statement released June 24, the lawsuit was filed based on the failure of the company’s supervisors to respond appropriately to complaints by a black employee that a co-worker, a 27-year-old Vietnamese American, played and sang along with rap music that had racial slurs in the lyrics, including the “N-word,” within his earshot in the workplace.

Do you, as an employer, now need to monitor the musical taste of your workers and pre-approve what’s playing on their radio or iPod, even in the break room? Or prohibit employees from listening to music at work altogether? No. But you do need to train your supervisors to take complaints of this nature seriously, and make a distinction between music that simply reflects different tastes, and music that could reasonably be perceived as offensive based on race, ethnicity, sex or any of the protected classes under federal, state and local discrimination laws.

EEOC District Director Michael Baldonado had this to say about the case. “This is the kind of situation that many workplaces [in the country] face: How do you manage the culture clash – across generations, race and ethnicity, you name it – in a workplace that gets more diverse every day? I think it’s critical to try to put yourself into the shoes of the other person and take all complaints of discrimination seriously. Together we can try to defuse tensions and prevent situations from developing into discrimination and harassment.”


Targeting your message may make sense in advertising, but it can signal trouble if the ad you’re placing is for an employment opportunity. Be careful not to use language that could be interpreted as an age or gender preference.

Describing the ideal candidate as a “recent graduate” or the position as “entry level” could signal a preference for a young candidate, and result in EEOC filings by older job applicants who believe they were rejected for discriminatory reasons.


In a decision hailed by employee advocates as a triumph, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that in age discrimination cases the employer bears the burden of proof that employment decisions having a “disparate impact” on older workers are based on a reasonable factor other than age.

Three years ago, in March 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Smith v. City of Jackson that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“the ADEA”) protects workers when an employer implements a policy which, on its face, has nothing to do with age, but in practice disproportionately impacts employees over age 40 in a negative way. (Notably, this marked a significant change for Florida employers because until that ruling, federal courts in Florida had held that the “disparate impact” theory was not applicable to age discrimination cases. To win a case, an ADEA plaintiff had to prove the employer’s alleged discriminatory policy was intended to harm older workers.) In Smith the Supreme Court held that such claims were in fact actionable under the ADEA, but did give the employer a “safe harbor” for their policies. Once an employee was able to show that the policy did in fact have a disparate impact, the employer could avoid liability by bringing forward evidence that the policy was based on “reasonable factors other than age,” a standard referred to by the Court as “RFOA.”

By requiring only an RFOA in the Smith case, the Court gave employers an advantage they did not have in disparate impact cases that traditionally arose in the contest of sex discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It has long been held that to avoid liability for a policy that has a disparate impact against a protected class under Title VII, the employer must show that the job requirement is a “bona fide occupational qualification,” referred to as a “BFOQ.” The classic examples in those early cases were height and weight restrictions which disproportionately excluded women from jobs as firefighters, but were held to be BFOQ’s because a certain minimum height and weight was deemed necessary to the ability to carry an overweight, unconscious victim out of a burning building. By interpreting the ADEA as requiring a lesser standard – the reasonableness standard of the RFOA instead of the absolute job necessity standard of the BFOQ – the Court made it much easier for an employer who was not intentionally discriminating to defend policies that had a disparate impact on older workers, so long as those policies were otherwise reasonable.

The question that remained after the Smith decision, however, was what happened procedurally after the employer brought forward evidence of the RFOA? To prove discrimination, did the employee have to prove that the employer’s asserted justification for the policy was in fact unreasonable? Or did the employer have the burden of proving that it was reasonable? While this distinction may appear at first blush to be a minor question of semantics, the question of who has the burden of proof can drastically change the outcome of a trial.

Until yesterday, federal courts were split on this issue. The Supreme Court has now resolved the question in Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, holding that the employer must not only bring forward evidence that its policy was based on an RFOA, but also prove that the factor relied on is a reasonable one.

What this case means as a practical matter for employers is that care should be taken to examine any policies that appear to disproportionately impact older workers, and be prepared not merely to articulate a reasonable, nondiscriminatory basis for that policy but also to prove that the policy is reasonable.