- The fallout from the events that toppled Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and his top lieutenants is still in progress.
- On Thursday, Eric Alexander, an executive who was fired as news reports emerged that he obtained access to a rape victim’s medical records, filed a lawsuit against Rachel Whetstone, a well-known and powerful PR and public policy pro who was Uber’s PR boss at the time he was let go.
- And the lawsuit is remarkable, not just in the allegations being made in it, but also the mechanism being used to sue her.
The fallout from Uber’s terrible, horrible, nasty 2017 that toppled founding CEO Travis Kalanick and his top lieutenants is still in progress, with a surprising new lawsuit between two former Uber execs sure to raise eyebrows throughout Silicon Valley.
On Thursday, Eric Alexander, one of the executives who was fired from the $US70 billion ride-hailing company during its tumultuous year, filed a suit against Rachel Whetstone, Uber’s former public relations boss, who also left during that year.
Alexander, who was fired as reports emerged that he had personally obtained the medical files of a rape victim, is being represented by litigation firm Quinn Emanuel, whose roster of previous big name clients include the Winklevoss twins.
The lawsuit is remarkable, not only for juicy allegations that describe a “Game of Thrones”-like behind-the-scenes feud among Uber executives, but also for the unusual legal claim that Alexander is using to go after Whetsone.
To boil it down: Alexander is alleging that Whetstone spread false rumours about him, rumours that led to news stories that caused him to be fired. That’s a big deal given that Whetstone is known in the Valley as a powerful PR person. PR people are rarely accused of this sort of thing. They typically defend companies and their execs when reporters come asking difficult questions. In response to our request for comment, Whetsone sent a link to a previous article that described an earlier effort by Alexander, handled by a different law firm, to sue several Uber executives.
The lawsuit, though full of allegations as all lawsuits are, does not include documents as evidence to back up its claims, such as emails, texts or documents.
The undisputed facts of the case are that Alexander was fired within hours of reporters coming to him and the company asking question about how he obtained the medical files of the victim of a famous rape case in India.
He was fired after reporters started asking questions
Alexander was Uber’s president of Asia Pacific when an Uber driver raped a passenger in 2014, an incident which briefly caused Uber to be banned from New Dehli. After the rape occurred, Alexander worked with local police, providing them with Uber route records and testifying at the trial, all of which helped put the accused rapist in prison for life.
The driver had been accused before, so the rape victim then sued Uber as well. Alexander worked with Uber’s internal legal team to hire lawyers and those lawyers obtained the police criminal records of the case which included the woman’s medical records, the lawsuit says. As Business Insider previously reported, Uber eventually settled the case with the victim for $US3 million.
Fast foward two years to the summer 2017, when Uber is a world of hurt after engineer Susan Fowler wrote a blog post detailing the sexism and sexual harassment she experienced during her employment there. Eric Holder and his law firm had just finished investigating a litany of similar complaints and Uber had announced that 20 people were fired.
Alexander was not among those 20, but when reporters from Recode and Bloomberg called the company to ask how an Uber executive obtained the victim’s medical files, repeating rumours they had heard about his treatment of those files, Alexander was summarily fired as well. News stories at the time reported that Uber insiders discussed if the rape incident was some sort of plot to sabotage Uber and that the medical files were peered at to cast doubts on the rape victim’s story – allegations that Alexander calls “false.”
In the lawsuit, Alexander’s lawyers allege that they believe that Whetstone was somehow behind those rumours and news stories, accusing her of “spreading false, disparaging and misleading information about Mr. Alexander’s response to the India rape.” It also says his reputation has been crushed as a result of these stories.
A 2-way non-disparagement clause
The lawsuit delves into how Alexander and Whetstone were regularly at odds: He publicly accused accused her of making racist comments; she publicly accused him at a Davos conference of mishandling these medical files, the lawsuit alleges.
And then it says something really strange: it alleges that when Whetstone resigned from Uber, her agreement with the company included a two-way non-disparagement clause. Companies often require an employee to agree to a non-disparagement clause – a provision that restricts the employee from saying anything bad about the company in order to receive a payout. But the lawyers say that, in an unusual move, Whetstone insisted that she be protected from disparagement as well and that the clause even named specific people, including Eric Alexander.
Ironically, instead of protecting her, this clause is the basis for the lawsuit. Alexander is suing for breach of contract because he was named in the two-way non-disparagement clause, and his lawyers arguing that Whetstone didn’t keep up her end of the agreement. The lawsuit doesn’t name a hoped-for dollar figure and Alexander isn’t suing anyone else, not even Travis Kalanick, who was still CEO at the time Alexander was fired.
As Business Insider previously reported, during the downfall of Uber founder CEO Travis Kalanick, Whetstone was one of the major players. Before Uber, Whetstone had served for years as head of public policy and communications at Google, growing wealthy from her time there. Once at Uber, people saw her role as speaking “truth to power” and not under Kalanick’s spell.
After a while Whetstone became disillusioned with Uber and her relationship with several top executives there grew contentious, multiple people told Business Insider. She left Uber to join Facebook and has now left Facebook for Netflix, Recode reports.
Here’s the lawsuit:
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