When lawyer Veena Dubal heard last month that Uber drivers seeking to be recognized as employees rather than independent contractors might settle their class-action lawsuit before it went to trial, she cried.
Dubal, an associate professor at the UC Hastings College of Law where she researches employment matters and worker classification, isn’t involved in the lawsuit. She’s not an Uber driver. She would have no financial gain either way. But as someone who has advocated for workers who have been misclassified, the proposed Uber settlement hit a nerve.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is not good,” she said. “I spent time looking over the proposed settlement, and there are really problematic non-monetary terms."
Under the proposed settlement of two class-action suits, Uber would pay up to $100 million to more than 400,000 drivers in California and Massachusetts. Drivers who have driven the longest would stand to get up to $8,000 in a one-off payment. The company would also change its policies to offer more transparency over driver termination, help drivers form associations so their views are represented in meetings with executives and allow drivers to display signs in their vehicles soliciting tips.
The issue of whether Uber drivers are company employees or independent contractors would remain unresolved. Uber drivers are currently classified as independent contractors, meaning they are not entitled to benefits such as minimum wage, overtime, expense reimbursement or health insurance.
In cases as large and as high profile as this one, objections to settlements aren’t uncommon, according to class-action law experts. But the number of drivers and attorneys who have been mobilized to object, and the subsequent mudslinging through court filings, isn’t common, either.
Attorneys Mark Geragos, Brian Kabateck and Christopher Hamner filed to have the plaintiffs’ attorney, Shannon Liss-Riordan, removed from the case entirely, saying the proposed settlement she hashed out with Uber was “designed solely to enrich Ms. Liss-Riordan and protect Uber at the expense of drivers."
A named plaintiff in the case, Douglas O’Connor, then decided he didn’t want to be represented by Liss-Riordan any more and jumped ship to attorneys Geragos and Kabateck.
Liss-Riordan shot back in her own filing, saying that most of the objectors don’t even practice in the field of wage and hour law, and they haven’t taken into consideration the risks of not settling -- namely that a court could uphold Uber’s arbitration provision, which would mean that the lawsuit could not proceed as a class action.
“[N]o reasonable attorney could seriously argue that a $100-million settlement, in the face of multiple risks that could mean recovering nothing, is inadequate," Liss-Riordan said in her filing.
She supported her filing with dozens of emails from Uber drivers who commended her for the settlement terms.
Still, objections continued to be submitted, even after the May 13 filing deadline. Whether they are accepted will be at the discretion of the judge.
Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the law firm representing Uber, made a filing urging Judge Edward Chen to deny objections filed after the deadline because “these ... add nothing new to the objections that came before them."
That didn't stop Dubal from jumping in, filing an objection herself Friday on behalf of five Uber drivers who feel that the settlement would not only shortchange them, but also cause more harm than good.
Dubal acknowledged that there were risks involved in going to trial, but that’s just the nature of trials. “Plaintiffs could get nothing,” she said. “But the reality is not only are most plaintiffs getting nothing [under the proposed settlement, but] the outcome for them is worse than nothing."
The proposed drivers association and deactivation panels, for example, could make drivers worse off by undermining independent worker representation, and by “creating illusory mechanisms to address driver grievances,” Dubal said.
Allowing drivers to solicit tips from passengers, she said, would “undercut the fight for wage security.”
The drivers she represents are also collecting signatures from hundreds of peers who want the proposed settlement thrown out.
A hearing is scheduled for June 2, when Chen will question plaintiff and defense attorneys about the settlement.
In the meantime, he has some colorful reading awaiting him.