Plaintiff allowed to seek punitive damages in employment sexual discrimination case

California's Silicon Valley region is home to several of the most successful and profitable tech companies in the world. While the region and its many millionaires are used to being covered in the news, more recently the region has received attention for very different reasons as concerns about widespread sexual discrimination have surfaced.

The many technology and computer companies that call the region home are dominated by a large male workforce, with the Institute for Women in Technology estimating that women comprise only 20 to 23 percent of Silicon Valley's tech industry workforce. This male-dominated culture has been the subject of many news stories and is at the center of one recent and very public sexual discrimination lawsuit.

In 2012, a woman by the name of Ellen Pao was fired from a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist firm. Pao had worked at the firm for seven years and, during that time, she contends was passed over for numerous promotions, paid less than her male colleagues and subjected to overt and egregious acts of sexual harassment and discrimination. Upon complaining about both a male colleague's sexual advances and the "firm's culture of gender discrimination," Pao says she was fired.

In response, Pao filed a $16 million dollar sexual discrimination lawsuit against her former employer and recently learned that she will be allowed to seek punitive damages. In employment lawsuits, California law allows a plaintiff to sue for punitive damages in cases where a defendant "acted with malice, fraud or oppression."

The judge’s ruling to allow Pao to seek punitive damages is significant in that, if successful, related monetary damages are often several times that which is awarded for compensatory damages. Additionally, the amount of punitive damages is often based on a defendant's assets which, in this case, is likely considerable.

Source: San Jose Mercury-News, "Judge: Ellen Pao may claim punitive damages in Kleiner Perkins suit," Heather Somerville, March 21, 2015

San Jose Mercury News, "Ellen Pao seeking $16 million in sex discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers," Heather Somerville, Feb. 2, 2015

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