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Ex-Uber Engineer Files Sexual Harassment Suit

Law360—Braden Campbell

A former Uber programmer sued the ride-hailing giant in California state court Monday alleging she was subject to such severe sexual harassment and retaliation that she was hospitalized, in a filing that comes days after the company pledged not to send sexual misconduct-based suits to arbitration.

Ingrid Avendano, who was one of three women of color who filed a pay equity class action against Uber last year, said she was sexually harassed by colleagues and ignored when she complained, causing her “extreme anxiety” that ultimately caused her to be hospitalized for three weeks in 2017. She quit later that year because Uber didn’t fix the “toxic” culture that led to her breakdown, she says.

“Ultimately, Avendano’s battle to make Uber a safe and just place to work for herself and other female employees came at a great cost to her — both in terms of Avendano’s career and her physical and mental health,” her complaint reads.

Avendano, who joined Uber in February 2014, alleges the harassment started at a recruiting event that October. She claims a worker made “unwelcome, demeaning comments” about women including that “Uber is the type of company where women can sleep their way to the top.” Avendano reported these comments to HR but the co-worker was not punished, she claims.

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Avendano also alleges Uber paid her a low starting salary because she is a woman and denied her promotions because she complained about being told not to discuss her pay with colleagues. She was ultimately promoted and given a $20,000 raise in February or March 2016, after most if not all of the male and white engineers who joined the company when she did were promoted, she said.

Avendano complained about sexism at Uber to company leader, including then-CEO Travis Kalanick and board member Arianna Huffington, but she was ignored, and media attention from her complaints exacerbated her ailing mental health, Avendano said. She claims she was constructively discharged — forced to quit — when Uber leaders “minimized” the harassment claims she and others raised after Covington & Burling LLP released a report and recommendation about the company’s culture in the wake of media reports.

Avendano’s attorney, Jennifer Schwartz of Outten & Golden LLP, said in a statement Monday that Avendano “demonstrated a steadfast commitment to the betterment of Uber.”

“And such an employee should not be subjected to efforts to silence her or to force her to resign,” she said.

Uber last week said it would no longer invoke its agreements with workers to send individual sexual harassment or assault claims to arbitration. Workers' advocates have criticized such arbitration agreements for helping employers keep harassment allegations hidden. 

The new suit is separate from Avendano’s October pay equity suit, which the company agreed to settle for $10 million earlier this year. The parties’ motion for settlement approval is pending. Avendano has opted out of that deal. 

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Avendano is represented by Jennifer Schwartz and Menaka Fernando of Outten & Golden LLP.

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The case is Ingrid Avendano v. Uber Technologies Inc., case number CGC-18-566677, before the Superior Court of California for the County of San Francisco.