Photo: Claire Anderson
First, Susan Fowler took on Uber. Now, she’s taking on the entire tech industry.
Fowler’s legal team filed an amicus brief in three court cases the Supreme Court is set to begin arguments on in October. In this amicus brief, Fowler’s lawyers argued that banning employees from making class-action lawsuits could violate federal labor laws.
Fowler is striking at the heart of the tech industry’s most common workplace rules, arbitration agreements that prevent employees from banding together to take on companies directly. Arbitration agreements exist so that companies don’t have to contend with class-action lawsuits from employees.
It’s an ambitious move, but Fowler has developed a short but successful track record in spurring change. Fowler is a former Uber engineer who wrote a blog post in February about the alleged sexual harassment and discrimination she experienced at the company. Her testimony spurred an internal investigation that led the company to fire more than 20 employees and set off a firestorm that eventually forced Travis Kalanick to resign as CEO.
Now Fowler wants to help stop toxic workplaces everywhere. She believes the source of the problem begins with the arbitration agreements employees sign when joining a company. Like all Uber employees, Fowler had to sign a class action waiver as part of her employment contract. Uber employees forfeit their right to sue the company and join a class-action suit when they sign individual arbitration clauses in their employment contracts. Arbitration clauses are common in many industries, from tech to finance to medicine.
A New York Times 2015 investigation into the practice found that arbitration is increasingly used by U.S. companies to remove consumers’ and employees’ ability to sue.
And worse? Results show that when cases go towards arbitration, the deck is stacked in favor of the company. Between 2010 and 2014, companies sought to push 1,179 class actions into arbitration, and judges overwhelmingly ruled in their favor in four out of every five cases, according to the Times.
Fowler: arbitration agreements can perpetuate illegal employment practices
Fowler is appealing to the highest legal power in the United States to change this.
“Companies require class action waivers to limit or eliminate the legal risk associated with systemic — and potentially or certainly illegal — employment practices,” her brief states. “The right to litigate collectively is particularly important in the 21st century in that such litigation is the most readily available means for modern day workers to act in concert to improve their working conditions.”
Her amicus brief warns that this practice needs to end or else there will be “more systemic employment law violations, less effective ways to remedy them.”
Not everyone is on Fowler’s side. When news of Fowler’s amicus brief broke, one user on Twitter said that she had gone too far: “She destroyed millions of dollars worth of shareholder value already, but hell hath no fury like a feminist scorned and she is going again.”
Fowler did not back down from taking on one of the most successful startups in the world. She did not back down from the tweet. Her response to this Twitter user was to laugh:
lol you're welcome https://t.co/xbofgLFiZZ
— Susan Fowler (@susanthesquark) August 24, 2017