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Uber Fined by California For Not Aiding Sexual Assault Probe (1)

Dec. 14, 2020, 8:58 PM; Updated: Dec. 15, 2020, 12:32 AM

Uber Technologies Inc. was ordered Monday to pay a $59 million fine for failing to provide the California Public Utilities Commission with information on sexual assault and harassment claims.

Uber’s permit could be suspended if it fails to pay the penalty within 30 days and comply with an administrative law judge’s ruling last December and January, according to the CPUC presiding officer’s decision.

The administrative judge had ordered Uber to answer questions regarding who wrote a safety report the company released last year about its passenger services, and to provide information under seal about sexual assault and sexual harassment claims that occurred in California in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Uber objected to the order to identify specific details of sexual assaults.

The company had refused, without any legitimate or factual grounds, to comply with rulings, and failed to follow California law, Chief Administrative Law Judge Anne E. Simon said Monday, presenting the findings of ALJ Robert Mason III. Uber’s arguments that the fine would harm the company, already hit by declining rides due to the coronavirus pandemic, were also rejected.

“Uber is a billion-dollar business that can easily afford to pay the $59,085,000.00 penalty. Even during a pandemic where ridership has undoubtedly declined, Uber’s audited and certified revenues are substantial enough that the penalty amount imposed by this decision does not run afoul of the constitutional limitation against excessive fines,” Mason said in the decision.

Uber Objects

Uber argues the decision is a shift from what CPUC requested and that the fine is unfair and arbitrary. Uber in December 2019 was the first company in the industry to release a U.S. safety report, spokeswoman Jodi Kawada Page said.

The CPUC insisted that Uber release sexual assault survivors’ full names and contact information without their consent, Kawada Page said.

Uber had argued that language in the order requiring information on “witnesses” would include victims reporting an assault. Uber’s objections were backed by the nation’s largest victims’ rights groups, including the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network and California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“Now, a year later, the CPUC has changed its tune: we can provide anonymized information—yet we are also subject to a $59 million fine for not complying with the very order the CPUC has fundamentally altered. These punitive and confusing actions will do nothing to improve public safety and will only create a chilling effect as other companies consider releasing their own reports,” Kawada Page said.

San Francisco-based Uber has 30 days to appeal the ruling, which was released the same day the company announced how it would implement provisions of a gig employer-backed fall initiative (Proposition 22) that allows companies to avoid classifying drivers and workers as employees.

Arguments Rejected

The administrative law judge rejected Uber’s arguments about violating victims’ privacy, holding that sufficient safeguards are in place to ensure confidentiality.

Uber’s own track record of protecting confidential driver and passenger personal information from disclosure “has been less than stellar,” including a hack that disclosed the names, email addresses, and mobile numbers of 57 million Uber users, the decision said. “Uber is not in the best position to challenge the Commission’s ability to protect the personally identifiable information of TNC passengers from accidental or purposeful disclosure.”

The CPUC also has sweeping authority to enforce compliance with its regulatory and investigative authority, the ALJ said, dismissing Uber’s argument the commission isn’t a law enforcement agency.

“Uber’s defenses are factually and legally insufficient to excuse its violations,” the ruling said.

The fine includes the maximum $7,500 per offense state law allows. The decision “stresses that it is an unresolved question at the Commission whether Uber should be deemed a public utility and, therefore, subject to the higher daily penalty of $100,000” under the state Public Utilities Code.

(Quotes, information added throughout)

To contact the reporters on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at jcutler@bloomberglaw.com; Lizette Chapman in San Francisco

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com; Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com

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