In Kleiner Perkins case, only one side gets to discuss Ellen Pao’s motives

March 13, 2015, 7:25 PM UTC
Ellen Pao, Therese Lawless
Ellen Pao, right, leaves the Civic Center Courthouse along with her attorney, Therese Lawless, left, during a lunch break in her trial Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, in San Francisco. A jury heard opening arguments Tuesday in a multi-million dollar sexual harassment lawsuit filed by the current interim chief of the news and social media site Reddit against a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Pau is seeking $16 milion in her suit against Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, alleging she was sexually harassed by male officials. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Photograph by Eric Risberg — AP

She opened the door. Uh oh.

That’s what I thought on Tuesday as Ellen Pao answered the final question from her attorney, as part of her gender discrimination suit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. (transcript per Re/Code):

Attorney: “You are currently the interim CEO of Reddit. Why have you continued this lawsuit?”

Pao: “It’s been a long journey, and I’ve tried many times to bring Kleiner Perkins to the right path. I think there should be equal opportunities for women and men to be venture capitalists. I wanted to be a VC, but I wasn’t able to do so in that environment. And I think it’s important as a person who wanted to be a venture capitalist but wasn’t able for people who want to be a venture capitalist to make those opportunities available in the future. And I wanted to make sure my story was told.”

This wasn’t a question nor answer about Pao’s alleged experiences of gender discrimination or retaliation while at Kleiner. It was about her motive in pursuing the case, beyond basic law and order. It also was quite eloquent and, I would think, the sort of thing that jurors wouldn’t forget.

The only trouble is that there is an alternate, much less noble, theory for why Pao has continued to pursue this case. Namely, that she may be in financial straights due to the various failed business dealings of her hedge fund manager husband, Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher. To get a general sense of Buddy’s various entanglements, here is some of what pops up when you search for him in a national court records database:



On Wednesday, Kleiner’s lead attorney asked to enter some of those bankruptcy filings into evidence, plus an alleged tax lien on Pao’s ongoing partnership interests in Kleiner funds. The judge had long ago ruled none of it was admissible, but that was before Pao had volunteered her own motive.

This was where my “uh oh” arrived. Was Pao about to go from heroic victim to something much less savory?

The judge said he would consider it. Late that night, he issued a ruling that kept Pao’s personal finances off-limits:



I understand the judge’s concerns about bias. Less so about privacy, at least on the already-public bankruptcy filings. Overall, however, I think he erred.

To be sure, the jury should only decide for or against Pao based on whether or not it believes she was discriminated against on the basis of her gender. But she chose to expand the scope by offering up a broader motive, at the prompting of her own attorney.

Kleiner certainly can challenge her accusations of discrimination — and has been doing so vigorously — but has been left no real way to question her stated motive. And, given that Pao’s statement of purpose was one of the trial’s most poignant moments, the judge’s ruling seems to have put Kleiner at an artificial disadvantage.

Uh oh.

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