In a setback for venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the San Francisco County Superior Court judge hearing a lawsuit against the Silicon Valley company denied a motion that would have thrown out former executive Ellen Pao's claim for punitive damages in her high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit.
Pao is suing her former employer, Kleiner Perkins, claiming gender discrimination and retaliation, alleging that she was not promoted by the company because she is a woman. She was fired in October 2012, five months after filing the lawsuit. She is seeking $16 million in lost wages and bonuses, and asking for an unspecified amount in punitive damages.
Kleiner's attorneys asked the judge to toss out Pao's claim for punitive damages, arguing that her attorneys could not prove that there was any malice involved.
In a ruling issued Saturday morning, Judge Harold Kahn disagreed with the defendants.
"There is sufficient evidence from which a reasonable juror could find, as to Ms. Pao's claims for gender discrimination and retaliation, that Kleiner Perkins acted with malice, fraud or oppression," Kahn said in his ruling. "There is sufficient evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude that Kleiner Perkins engaged in intentional gender discrimination by failing to promote Ms. Pao and terminating her employment, and that Kleiner Perkins attempted to hide its illegal conduct by offering knowingly false and pretexual explanations for its decisions not to promote Ms. Pao and to terminate her employment."
Had the judge granted the firm's request to have the punitive damages claim thrown out, the suit could have gone forward with Pao seeking the $16 million for lost wages and bonuses. With the request denied, a Pao victory could lead to a payout greater than $16 million, because awards for punitive damages often far exceed amounts awarded in compensatory damages.
Kahn and jury members will hear closing arguments from both plaintiff and defendant on Tuesday.