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Uber, the widely used rideshare service based in San Francisco, was recently hit with a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in its employment practices. On October 26, 2020, Thomas Liu, a former Uber driver, filed a complaint against the company in a California federal court alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). Mr. Liu is seeking class action status to join other minority drivers who have experienced discrimination in their work, particularly those whom Uber terminated as a result of how passengers rated them.
After each Uber ride, passengers and drivers can quantify their experience with one another by providing feedback through the company’s 5-star rating system. The average of one’s total ratings is used to assign a score, also measured on a 5-point scale, to each Uber driver and passenger. If that score drops below a minimum threshold set by Uber, the driver or rider will be removed from the app. Such was Mr. Liu’s experience when, after repeated low ratings from passengers, his driver eligibility was “deactivated” by Uber.
Uber passengers use their app to hail a ride, which sends a signal to nearby drivers. Once a driver “accepts” a passenger’s ride, the driver and passenger can see one another. According to Mr. Liu, riders frequently cancelled their rides once they saw who their driver would be: an Asian man. These premature cancellations lowered Mr. Liu’s Uber score. Moreover, Mr. Liu claimed that passengers who accepted rides with him often asked him where he was from in a rude tone. These experiences led Mr. Liu to suspect that passengers who rated him poorly were doing so as a result of his race. His score eventually dropped below Uber’s threshold of 4.6 out of 5, resulting in Uber dropping Mr. Liu from the app, effectively terminating his employment with the company.
Mr. Liu’s legal complaint alleges that Uber’s 5-star rating system violates Title VII because “customer evaluations of workers [via the rating system] are frequently racially biased.” Mr. Liu claims that the rating system results in disparate impact: a minority group of workers is negatively affected by discrimination, even if the company does not intend to discriminate. The complaint then points to past statements from Uber to show that the company has been aware of the disparate impact of the rating system, and that continued use of the system now constitutes intentional discrimination against non-white drivers. Mr. Liu seeks from the court class action status, a finding that Uber’s 5-star rating system is discriminatory under Title VII, an injunction barring Uber from continued use of its rating system in determining driver terminations, and damages.
The court may consider the following in determining whether Mr. Liu’s allegations meet the standards of Title VII:
- Whether Uber knew of any alleged disparate impact caused by its 5-star rating system, or whether the system is inherently designed in a way that results in disparate impact.
- Whether Uber used the results of its rating system to deactivate the profiles of non-white drivers over similarly situated white drivers with inadequate scores.
- Whether the same minimum score is applied to non-white drivers and similarly situated white drivers with respect to deactivation decisions.
- Whether there is a less discriminatory alternative to the 5-star rating system.
- Whether Uber drivers are classified as independent contractors or enjoy employee status, which some California courts have recognized, thus allowing Uber drivers to bring such discrimination claims under Title VII.
The case is still in its early stages. As of early December 2020, the parties have yet to appear for a hearing on Uber’s motion to dismiss the class allegations. Keep an eye out for developments in this important employment litigation.
If you believe you have experienced discrimination as an Uber passenger or driver, reach out to Uber here. You can also consider consulting with employment attorneys or filing with a governmental employment rights agency.