The lawyer representing Uber drivers in the historic settlement — which could total as much as $100 million — is under attack. Critics and even the judge in the case say attorney Shannon Liss-Riordan may not be fighting hard enough, and that she may be accepting too little for the drivers. Liss-Riordan disagrees, and to prove her pure intentions, she is reducing her fees.
A Weak Settlement?
The last couple of weeks have not been pretty.
"The attorney Shannon doesn't work for our side at all and we reject she represents us at all," driver Adam Shaheen says about Liss-Riordan.
We were standing in the lobby of the federal courthouse in San Francisco, decompressing after the most recent hearing on the Uber class action. The case was brought by drivers who say they are employees, entitled to overtime and other benefits. Uber says they are independent contractors.
The hearing went on for more than three hours. Driver Mohamed Hajyousif sat through it. "I don't want to accept the weak settlement that, you know, that lady — she accept for us."
In response to the point that many drivers have signed on to join the class action, which she has been litigating for three years, he says, "but look at the result. After 3 years, she comes up with a very weak settlement."
Back in the courtroom, nine different attorneys, representing different drivers, stood before the judge and argued he should reject the settlement that Liss-Riordan cooked up with Uber back in April.
At the same time, Uber's lawyer — who'd been fighting with Liss-Riordan tooth and nail before — seemed to be the only person in the courtroom defending the deal and Liss-Riordan's track record as a champion of the worker.
Meanwhile, as driver Hajyousif recalls, Judge Edward Chen scolded Liss-Riordan, charging that she handed Uber a 99.99 percent discount. The judge also suggested Liss-Riordan was leaving money on the table.
Now, other lawyers could take up the claims for clients who decide to opt out of this payment.
"That's true," concedes lawyer Chris Morosoff, who represents a Los Angeles driver. "But they're going to be litigating on their own. And it's very difficult — their claims may be worth $10,000."
Which means it's not worth his time. Fight for years for just one driver and manage to win against Uber, his cut would be just a few grand. "I'm probably not going to do it, and neither is any other wage and hour lawyer in the country."
A Hard-Fought Case
Liss-Riordan sat down with NPR to explain herself. She's just submitted a notice to the court that she'd like to reduce her fee in the proposed settlement by $10 million. That's about half, so long as Uber remains a private company.
"We had to overcome a lot of hurdles to get to where we got in this case," she says. "This was not easy. This was a very hard fought case. This has been the hardest fought case of my career."
And Liss-Riordan wants Uber drivers to know: she's not afraid of fighting. She's just a realist. Before she represented them, Liss-Riordan litigated on behalf of taxicab drivers. She managed to get a quarter-billion dollar injunction against Boston Cab. The company appealed. Liss-Riordan won. They appealed again.
"Everyone thought I was going to win. I thought I was going to win," she says. Workers and activists were cheering her on, "and then, you want to know what happened last spring? Much to my shock and amazement, the Massachusetts Supreme Court reversed."
Which means the whole case went away. Same thing happened when she fought for Skycap workers, in the airline industry.
Liss-Riordan repeatedly told the judge in the Uber case, "if you don't like the proposed deal, send it to trial. I'll go to trial." But she's not convinced she'd win there. The case would go before a jury in San Francisco — a city, where, she points out she can't walk half a block without overhearing someone on the street talking about Uber. "Oh, have you called your Uber? Where's your Uber? I gotta go get an Uber."
'The Future Is The Future'
Liss-Riordan wants to clear up some misconceptions. First, Uber's crazy high valuations — worth $10 billion, then $50 billion, then $60+ billion — she says they don't affect how much drivers get for past wrongs, in the eyes of the law.
But if Uber keeps operating as is — doesn't reclassify drivers as employees, even if they're driving full time and overtime — drivers can sue. Drivers in New York recently filed a suit. And, she says, her settlement doesn't set a bad precedent for them.
"The future is the future," she says. "This doesn't resolve anything for the future. It resolves this particular claim that I've been litigating for the last 3 years for the past."
Liss-Riordan has asked Uber to contribute $10 million more as well to drivers. The company has not responded. The judge has not yet ruled on the proposed settlement.
The company has not responded to the request and says the settlement, as is, is very fair and reasonable.
Call Out To Drivers:
NPR is interviewing Uber drivers about their work. If you're a driver and would like to talk, email email@example.com. And please include a screenshot of your last weekly earnings statement from your Uber app. Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.