Fired Uber Driver Sues for Racial Discrimination Over the Company's Star Rating System
Uber's drivers have filed yet another lawsuit against the company that will both test whether Uber's system discriminates against minority drivers and whether civil rights protections apply to people who are classified as independent contractors. The case is the latest in a long line of lawsuits against the company filed by drivers who claim illegal treatment. At issue here is the way that Uber allows for its drivers to be rated and the company's use of that information to retain or fire drivers.
The plaintiff in this specific lawsuits is an Asian-American driver who originally hails from Hawaii. His name is Thomas Liu, and he lives in San Diego. He claims that customers often rudely asked him where he was from, and it was just the start of their unpleasant interaction. Some customers even cancelled their ride with him when they saw his photograph, according to the lawsuit. In the end, customers gave their driver a rating using Uber's star system.
The Driver Was Fired When His Rating Fell Below 4.6
Even though five-star is the top rating that drivers can receive, their ability to continue driving for Uber is in jeopardy if they are not almost perfect. In fact, if their ratings drop below 4.6, they are subject to termination. Liu says that this is exactly what happened to him. When his rating dropped, Liu was let go from Uber.
After his termination, Liu did not just simply go away. Instead, he filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, claiming that the rating system was discriminatory. However, the EEOC dismissed his lawsuit when it could not make a finding of discrimination. This is what prompted Liu to file the lawsuit in federal court.
The lawsuit claims that Uber's rating system makes minority drivers more vulnerable to being fired for lower ratings. Liu argues that the system allows for riders' racial biases to come into play and that there is no way to adjust ratings to compensate for that. Even though Uber has been told that their rating system results in discrimination but has refused to adjust the system.
Independent Contractors May Not Enjoy the Same Civil Rights Protections as Employees
The plaintiff is seeking class action status on behalf of similarly situated drivers. He claims that hundreds of minority Uber drivers have received the same treatment. However, Uber is likely to respond that its drivers are independent contractors. There is a question about whether an independent contractor would have the same legal protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a full-fledged employee. The complaint spends much time trying to justify that the plaintiff was actually an employee for purposes of civil rights protections. Uber is already under legal attack from the State of California based on how it classifies its drivers.
The question would be whether the company has an obligation to adjust ratings that its customers give so that minorities are not disproportionately impacted. At issue would be whether a system that is presumably race-neutral could be discriminatory on its own. However, the problem with Uber's purportedly neutral algorithms are that the practical application of them ends up being discriminatory. For example, the algorithm ends up charging more for rides in non-white areas, resulting in additional burden for riders from those areas. In addition, other studies have shown that Black riders faced longer wait times and had their rides cancelled by drivers more often.
Moreover, Liu alleges that Uber knows the exact effect that its algorithm has on minorities. For example, Uber for years refused to allow tipping through the app, claiming that it would discriminate against minority drivers. Now, the company would be claiming ignorance in its defense of this lawsuit about possible racially discriminatory effects from its systems.
The lawsuit is seeking several forms of relief from the court. The first is that the court issue an injunction ordering Uber to stop using its star system for purposes of determining when to terminate drivers. The lawsuit also seeks compensatory damages on behalf of the plaintiffs. The lawsuit is even seeking damages for emotional distress and possible punitive damages. One of the nest steps in the case will be a court hearing where a judge would decide whether to certify the plaintiffs as a class. This would be crucial to whether the lawsuit is able to proceed as a class action in the future.
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