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How David Lowe took on Pinterest, Tesla, and Rivian to become Silicon Valley’s go-to lawyer

February 15, 2022, 11:00 AM UTC

The tech world has no shortage of lawsuits, from patent disputes to antitrust cases. But there’s something unique about the recent string of high-profile complaints filed against some of the industry’s buzziest companies: Tesla, Pinterest, and Rivian. All were brought by female former employees, each alleges some form of gender discrimination, and unlike many similar suits in the past, the plaintiffs in each of these cases made their claims very, very public. There is another notable connection: All of the complaints were filed by the same attorney, David Lowe, of San Francisco–based employment law firm Rudy Exelrod Zieff & Lowe.

Lowe, 51, has emerged as a go-to for tech employees—from C-level executives to those on the factory front lines—who say they’ve been wronged by their multibillion-dollar employers. In December alone, Lowe filed six separate suits against Elon Musk’s Tesla, alleging a culture of sexual harassment, lewd comments, and inappropriate touching. Taking on the world’s most powerful corporations is nothing new for Lowe or his firm; Rudy Exelrod Zieff & Lowe also handled Ellen Pao’s industry-rocking suit against her former employer, VC giant Kleiner Perkins, back in 2012. But he and his colleagues are now at the forefront of what could become a game-changing shift in how these cases are handled.

The pivotal moment came in 2020, when Lowe scored a landmark $22.5 million settlement for Francoise Brougher, the former chief operating officer at scrapbooking service Pinterest. Brougher, a longtime tech exec who joined Pinterest in 2018, claimed she had been left out of important meetings and paid less than her male colleagues, and that she was fired when she complained about these issues. The settlement, in which Pinterest did not admit any wrongdoing, is the largest ever publicized payout in a gender discrimination suit. But that’s just part of its significance. What truly sets it apart is the deal’s fine print: Even after the settlement, Brougher would have the freedom to speak publicly about her allegations.

For decades, activists fighting workplace sexism, harassment, and other forms of discrimination have pointed to legal arrangements that keep such accusations private and out of the public eye as one of the most immovable roadblocks on the path to creating safer and more equal workplaces. Now, says Lowe, “there is a bit of sea change.” He continues: “Some of that is coming from people like Francoise, but also from advocates and legislative action, where we’ve seen bills passed making confidentiality in settlements more restrictive. There’s a growing awareness that there’s a societal cost to [keeping these agreements under wraps].”

As nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) and so-called mandatory arbitration agreements, which force employees to resolve disputes privately, fall out of favor, more workers have the option to follow in Brougher’s footsteps and air their complaints in the press or in open court. That’s bringing an intense new spotlight to claims of company misbehavior—and to the man prosecuting them.

‘David has absolutely shredded the CEOs of big tech companies’

When you Zoom with Lowe at his downtown San Francisco office, the first thing you notice is the oil painting behind his desk, a portrait of a massive bull pawing at the ground like he can’t wait to sink his horns into your belly. “I was worried it would come across as too aggressive,” says Lowe with a laugh. But while the litigator himself seems personable, even soft-spoken, the impressions of those who’ve worked with him—or sat at the defense table across from him—suggest his choice of office decor is, in some sense, apt.

“I’ve been in depositions with David where he has absolutely shredded the CEOs of big tech companies,” says Erin Pulaski, a partner at Rudy Exelrod Zieff & Lowe, the 13-person firm where Lowe has worked since 1996.

Still, part of what makes Lowe so successful, say those who know him, is his ability to balance that killer instinct with real empathy.

Lowe remembers the first case he took on as a junior lawyer more than 25 years ago. The client was a waitress, a server at a large restaurant chain. The young woman came to Lowe’s firm because she had been groped by one of the kitchen workers. When she complained to her managers, they did nothing. Lowe took on the case, and says he got her a “good outcome.” Decades later, he can’t say which company she sued, or how large the settlement was (it included a confidentiality clause), but it’s clear the case stuck with him.

“The ability to come in and have the resources to take on this huge conglomerate defendant on behalf of someone who didn’t have much power or ability to advocate for herself was really impactful to me,” says Lowe.

His career as an employment lawyer seems almost inevitable. “My dad was a lawyer who fought for people who were injured,” says the attorney, who was raised in Ohio. “My mom was a social worker. So I grew up in a socially progressive environment where I saw firsthand how the legal system could be used to help people.”

Other aspects of Lowe’s identity played a role in shaping his career, too. “I came out in high school,” says Lowe. “Being openly gay in suburban Cleveland made me interested in civil rights as it affected LGBTQ people.”

Around that same time, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the AIDS crisis was raging, and Lowe became interested in the intersection of public health and the legal system. Initially, he turned to activism, getting involved with several progressive movements that aimed to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination, in the health care system and beyond. “I have several convictions for protest-related activities,” Lowe says, with an unmistakable hint of pride.

young man escorted by policeman
David Lowe at an ACT UP protest in Atlanta, circa 1989.
Courtesy of David Lowe

After studying philosophy and English at Emory, he applied to law school at University of California at Berkeley. That’s where he became fascinated by employment law and its potential to empower people in another critical arc of their lives: how they support themselves and their families. Lowe quickly transitioned to making laws that govern the workplace his own life’s work.

‘He litigates over what matters’

The office of Rudy Exelrod Zieff & Lowe is located on the seventh floor of a San Francisco high-rise, in the middle of the city’s oldest business district. It’s a neighborhood that bustled with tech executives and organic salad joints in pre-pandemic days. But on this mid-December afternoon, hardly anyone is on the streets. The majority of the Bay Area’s tech company HQs are still shuttered, and inside the firm’s office, the hush suggests the lawyers, too, are working from home.

Indeed, most of them are. But not Lowe, who’s the only person in the office today, and most days. With no receptionist or assistant around, he meets me at the elevator doors and escorts me to his expansive, wood-paneled office. Inside, I can see the full breadth of the attorney’s interior decor choices—not just the bull, but the Japanese painted screen, a sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesh, and framed photos of his three smiling children and proud husband.

Lowe made partner in 2007, 11 years after joining, and managing partner in 2014. Today, he leads the firm (all of the founding partners retired from operational roles in 2014). 

“The partners who founded the firm really get the credit for developing the firm’s reputation for integrity,” says Lowe. “I’ve done my best to live up to that legacy and to have as my professional objective to provide the best possible legal services to people who are in very difficult circumstances.”

Lowe brings that sense of mission to every case the firm takes on, whether representing a high-powered C-suite executive or a factory worker, says Chaya Mandelbaum, a partner who joined in 2014. “It’s the purpose behind the practice and the laws we enforce,” says Mandelbaum. “Righting wrongs, pursuing civil rights, getting people’s wages back.”

Even defense lawyers who’ve done battle with Lowe speak respectfully of his approach.

“Most civil litigation is highly contentious, and sometimes it can get personal and nasty,” says John Potter, a renowned trial lawyer with Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, who argued against Lowe in a recent case. “It was never that way with David, and that’s to the credit of David. He litigates over what matters.”

Taking on Tesla

Lowe and his partners track their roster of cases using a monster of a spreadsheet. He prints it out regularly, stapling the pages together neatly. He uses this document to track the nearly 30 clients his firm is currently representing, and the status of each lawsuit, many of which are making headlines—including the Tesla cases.

Lowe’s suits against Tesla began last November, when he sued the company on behalf of former factory worker Jessica Barraza. The ex–Tesla employee said she was the victim of sexual harassment, including catcalling and aggressive physical touching, while she worked at the electric-car maker’s Fremont, Calif., location. The very next month, Lowe filed six more suits against Tesla, representing six additional women, all of whom claimed that they, too, were subjected to sexual harassment, and that their employer failed to take it seriously, “from the top of the company down.”

“To me what’s significant about the new cases is that they are so similar to the Barraza case,” Lowe tells me after news of the six additional Tesla lawsuits broke. “All of these women were having similar experiences. It bolsters what we believe to be the case: It’s not just a couple of bad apples, it’s a very bad, systemic problem.” (Tesla did not respond to a request for comment from Fortune.)

Another thing that stands out about the Tesla accusations for Lowe is the type of behavior they portray—overt incidents like brushing up against a woman’s body, or telling a female employee she should be a stripper because of her “big butt.” Allegations of such clearly egregious, discriminatory behavior are “directly out of the ’70s or ’80s,” says Lowe. Today, most of the cases he sees involve more subtle forms of misbehavior.

What does that look like? Lowe cites Brougher’s case as a prime example. Her allegations didn’t include claims of blatantly sexist comments or unwanted advances. Instead, she says, she was left out of key meetings, given gendered feedback, and paid less than male colleagues. These types of discrimination are “just as damaging,” says Lowe. “But they’re not as well understood.”

One reason for the confusion around what discrimination looks like is that the details of such cases are often shielded from public view owing to the ubiquity of “mandatory arbitration agreements.” Over the years, these clauses have been common in employment contracts in the tech and finance industries, as well as in many low-wage workplaces. In order to work at a company that employs these agreements, employees must agree to take any dispute against their employers to arbitration, where a private settlement is worked out between the parties behind closed doors. The benefits to employers are obvious: Not only do they avoid the legal fees involved in a court case, but they keep employee allegations off the radar screen of shareholders, clients, would-be employees, and, of course, the media.

“Arbitration has been a really insidious development,” Lowe tells me. “Employers have realized that they can have a tool to shield themselves from public accountability.”

The #MeToo movement, which took off in 2018, started a public conversation about the ills of mandatory arbitration (as well as NDAs), empowering employees in various industries to push back against these policies. In its wake, some companies, including Google, Uber, and Facebook, have since rescinded their arbitration requirements. Lawmakers, too, are increasingly turning their attention toward the issue. California has imposed new limitations on the use of mandatory arbitration clauses, and in October, the state passed a law designed to protect workers who speak out about harassment or discrimination, even if they’ve signed an NDA. (One of the bill’s authors is former Pinterest employee Ifeoma Ozoma, who, along with Aerica Shimizu Banks, accused the company of racial discrimination in 2020. Pinterest has not commented on the allegations, but its CEO has apologized for aspects of the company’s culture.) And just this month, Congress passed the Ending Forced Arbitration Act with overwhelming bipartisan support. The bill, which President Biden is expected to sign into law, forbids employers to require arbitration for sexual harassment claims.

Even in cases where mandatory arbitration agreements have already been signed, Lowe says shifts in law are making it possible to push back—which is exactly what he’s doing. Barraza, one of Lowe’s clients suing Tesla, signed a mandatory arbitration agreement with the electric-vehicle maker back in 2018 when she was first hired. But Lowe is arguing that the piece of paper Barraza signed is not enforceable in California, which has already mandated “minimum standards of procedural fairness” when it comes to arbitration agreements between employers and employees. Exactly how “fairness” will be defined in this case remains to be seen—as do the details of the new federal law. (Already, the Chamber of Commerce has pushed back against the bill.) But even in the face of such legal ambiguity, simply filing the case and making the argument that some existing forced arbitration agreements are unenforceable has thrust the issue into the headlines. Lowe is confident that public opinion, particularly in his home state—which is also the home of many leading tech companies—is swaying in favor of his clients.

The people—and the pain—behind the lawsuits

The month before his flurry of Tesla lawsuits, Lowe filed a suit against a different high-profile vehicle maker, e-truck startup Rivian. In that case, which was announced the week before Rivian went public in a blockbuster IPO that valued it at more than $100 billion, former sales and marketing head Laura Schwab claimed that she was fired by the company after complaining about gender discrimination. Like Brougher, Schwab says she had been excluded from key meetings and ignored when she raised the issue with her boss. She also alleges that her concerns about vehicle pricing and manufacturing deadlines were ignored, and that Rivian suffered from a “toxic bro culture.” (A spokesperson from Rivian declined to comment on the lawsuit.)

Schwab, a longtime auto exec who previously served as president of Aston Martin, says she turned to Lowe for a simple but revealing reason. “I called him, and he answered his phone,” she says. “I was really stunned because I didn’t expect to get to speak [directly] with him. He took such a personal interest.”

Lowe’s commitment to treating each client as an individual, with unique needs and experiences, is something you hear about over and over from those he works with. Simply listening and helping clients realize they’re not alone is a big part of his job, says Lowe. After all, win or lose, these are people who feel they have been wronged in the deepest sense—discriminated against because of their identity. Whether frontline factory workers or C-level executives, those who come to him have had their careers and finances, their self-esteem, and even their health damaged, sometimes in deep and painful ways.

“It was a very difficult and emotional time for me,” says Schwab. “[Lowe] is a good listener. It’s rare to feel that personal connection.”

But another part of Lowe’s job is pushing his clients to examine what they hope to achieve with their suit, and to stick with those goals. “Every case is different because every client comes to us with somewhat different objectives in mind,” he says.

There’s the economic outcome, of course. But complainants in workplace disputes—and especially disputes that revolve around discrimination—can have very different priorities, says Lowe. Some are focused on preserving certain business relationships and look for ways to resolve things quickly and quietly. Meanwhile, others may want to make waves, to get headlines and eyeballs on their case.

“I wanted to raise awareness about this type of behavior, to let people know that this could happen at the highest level of an organization in technology,” says Brougher, the plaintiff in the recent Pinterest lawsuit, when asked about her objectives in bringing the case forward. She says Lowe helped her crystallize her goals, and develop a plan to achieve them. In her case, that meant not only a hefty monetary settlement, but the ability to keep talking about her experiences. To draw even more awareness to the discrimination she says she suffered at Pinterest, Brougher also wanted her former employer to participate in donating a joint $2.5 million to charities that support women and underrepresented minorities in tech. With Lowe representing her, she succeeded on this front, too, and the donation was written into the terms of her settlement with the company. (It’s worth noting that Ozoma and Banks, who did not receive a settlement from Pinterest, have called the company’s deal with Brougher a “slap in the face.”)

It’s likely that Schwab’s suit against Rivian, and the multiple claims against Tesla, will end up settling out of court somewhere along the way. (Tesla, it should be noted, was also recently sued for racial discrimination by the State of California; Lowe says he doesn’t know to what extent his suits against the company may have swayed the state to file its complaints.) It’s a common outcome, and one that satisfies many clients. But whether or not these cases make it to court, Lowe is determined not only to represent the will of his clients, but to make sure the public is aware and educated about the claims they’re bringing forward, assuming, of course, the two objectives align. Increasingly, they do. And judging by how constantly his phone rings—and yes, he answers it himself—he’ll have plenty more opportunity to do so in the coming years.

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