US tech major Cisco filed opening brief in the US Appeal Court to compel arbitration with John Doe, a Dalit employee who had filed caste-bias lawsuit against the company.
This comes after its petition for a private arbitration process was denied by the trial court in Santa Clara county early this year. Cisco filed the brief on September 7 in the Appeals Court in the State of California.
Moneycontrol has reviewed the copy of the brief.
This is one of the most closely watched cases in Silicon Valley. For, its outcome could force tech giants to take a relook at how they handle discrimination, especially one based on caste, in the workplace.
An email has been sent to Cisco for a comment on this development. The story will be updated with their response.
Cisco caste-bias lawsuit and arbitration
On June 30, 2020, a lawsuit alleging caste discrimination was filed against Cisco by the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) on behalf of Doe. The lawsuit accused two upper-caste Brahmins, Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, of harassing the Dalit worker, referred to as John Doe to protect his identity, in their capacity as managers.
After the lawsuit, the company filed a petition to compel arbitration with Doe, which was denied. To compel arbitration is to make the plaintiff, here Doe, to submit to the arbitration process and take the dispute resolution out of court and to a third party.
This petition came up for hearing on January 26, 2021 in a trial court in the US. Judge Drew C Takaichi denied private arbitration in an order dated February 26 on the grounds that, “This claim and relief exceeds the scope of the private arbitration agreement.”
The order said the claims by the DFEH in Doe’s case on violations of California’s fair employment and housing act by Cisco, was in public interest that is broader than relief specific to Doe.
Cisco had appealed this verdict in the appellate court.
Appeal in the US court
Cisco in its opening brief contested the trial court’s order that the claims by DFEH that the lawsuit was in public interest and is broader than the relief specific to Doe. According to the filing, the agency does not have the legal statute to pursue its own interest, which is going beyond individual representation of Doe.
In its brief filed in the court, the company said that DFEH has no authority to pursue interests independent of Doe’s, when civil lawsuits can be subjected to private arbitration. It further said that the trial court reached the “wrong conclusion” by denying Cisco’s motion to compel arbitration.
“…the trial court erred in holding that the DFEH is pursuing independent interests. Because it cannot pursue such interests in a civil action on behalf of an individual employee, under the applicable test for arbitrability, the DFEH’s claims on behalf of the employee must be arbitrated,” the filing read.
Since DFEH is not bringing a class action suit, but is representing an individual, the agency cannot have independent interests to pursue the case. “It is acting solely as Doe’s proxy. The DFEH is bound by Doe’s arbitration agreement,” according to the filing
“For the foregoing reasons, the order denying the motions to compel arbitration should be reversed with directions to enter an order compelling arbitration of this case,” the report read.
In addition to the appeal, the company had filed Cisco filed ‘demurrer’ and ‘motion of strike’ petitions in the California court on October 26, 2020. The hearing scheduled for March 9, was stayed pending arbitration appeal.
The US-based Ambedkar International Center along with 19 organisations including Ambedkar King Study Circle, and Anti-caste Discrimination Alliance, filed an amicus brief opposing Cisco’s ‘demurrer’ and ‘motion to strike’ petitions, which challenges the legality of the caste bias lawsuit filed against it last year.
Ryan McCarl and John Rushing, founding partners, Rushing McCarl lawfirm in the US that filed the brief for Ambedkar International Centre, explained to Moneycontrol earlier that, both the motions are at the core of the caste discrimination and outcome could force other technology companies to look at caste discrimination as a more serious issue.
Why is this case important?
The outcome is important given the role of the Indian population in Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the US.
According to the 2019 report by the Strengthening South Asian Communities in America, there were about 5 lakh Indians in California, accounting for 1.3 percent of the state’s total population and home to 20 percent of the total Indian immigrant population.
There is no clear data on how many of these Indians are Dalits. But according to the lawsuit against Cisco, only 1.5 percent of the Indian immigrants were from the Dalit community as of 2003. This could have increased by now.