Lots of secrets when your employer wants to keep your discrimination complaint out of court

Here’s a great example of how hard a company will work to keep its dirty laundry out of the public eye. Ellen Pao, a junior partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, sued the firm for sex discrimination in May. Kleiner filed its response yesterday, denying Pao’s allegations. Along with its denials, Kleiner also said that Pao shouldn’t be in court at all — she signed documents agreeing to arbitration in the event of a dispute, according to Kleiner. If the firm prevails on that, there will be no public record of the dispute after these initial filings.

And it gets worse, according to the Mercury News, which has reported on documents that aren’t yet available on the San Francisco Superior Court website. Not only does Kleiner say that Pao’s case doesn’t belong in court. It also says that the documents that support that argument should be kept under wraps.

Take a look at my Bloomberg column marking the recent 25th anniversary of an important Supreme Court decision that let brokerage firms force customers to use industry-run arbitration instead of court. It’s only gotten worse for investors, consumers, and employees since that June 8, 1987 decision. It’s too early to make a judgment on either side’s arguments in Pao v Kleiner. But the push to keep things quiet is part of a long, worrisome trend.

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Could Silicon Valley Sex Discrimination Case Get Kicked Out of Court?

Sex discrimination isn’t the iPad, folks. It’s more like
the electric typewriter.

When you see the words “tech” or “venture capital,” you think of brilliant geeks coming up with cool new stuff you’d never heard of before, right? Well tech types are in the 1980s when it comes to sex discrimination cases. Ellen Pao, who sued the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers last month, is claiming that the guys she worked with excluded her from meetings and held fancy dinners with big clients and left the women out. One of her partners said it would “kill the buzz” to have women at one power dinner, according to her suit. We didn’t fix that leaving-the-girls-out thing a couple decades ago?

Kleiner has said the suit is “without merit,” and its star general partner, John Doerr, said in a letter posted on the firm’s website on May 30 that it all amounted to “false allegations against his firm, which boasts “the most” women of any leading venture capital firm. As luck would have it, Kleiner’s woman numbers rose by one the next day, when the firm announced a new partner to focus on investments in consumer internet business, Megan Quinn, would begin in late June.

We’ll see if Pao can even get to court. Kleiner spokeswoman Amanda Duckworth told me in an email that the firm believes Pao’s claims “are covered by an arbitration agreement.” Alan Exelrod, Pao’s lawyer, declined to comment when I asked him if she’d signed anything obligating her to arbitration. Kleiner hasn’t filed any request to have the complaint kicked out of court, but companies in employment disputes usually love the idea of getting a case out of the public eye. Here’s my Bloomberg column on the Pao case and its striking resemblance to lawsuits 20 years past. Read article