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Civil rights agency petitions court to force Tesla to comply with racial discrimination investigation

Tesla is under pressure to produce witnesses for an investigation into claims of harassment and discrimination at its Bay Area factory.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — California’s Civil Rights Department announced a new legal action against Tesla over the company’s failure to comply with a subpoena in an ongoing, confidential investigation into claims of unlawful harassment and discrimination at the company’s Fremont factory.

“Tesla’s failure to comply with my office’s obligation to investigate allegations of workplace misconduct shows a lack of respect for the rights and well-being of their workers,” agency director Kevin Kish said in a statement.

“Under California law, it is our responsibility to take each and every complaint of civil rights violations seriously -- and to follow the facts wherever they lead. The California Civil Rights Department will not accept any attempts to obstruct our investigation. My office is simply seeking to fulfill its statutory duty to investigate allegations of discrimination. Tesla is not above the law.”

The agency sued Tesla last year, accusing the Silicon Valley auto giant of allowing and enabling widespread race discrimination at its assembly plant and claiming it failed to comply with its ongoing investigation into whether Black employees at the electric car manufacturer’s factory faced discrimination and harassment.

Tesla countersued the agency in Alameda County Superior Court, saying the department adopted "underground regulations" to allow it to file the lawsuit without notifying Tesla or giving the company a chance to settle.

In Wednesday's action, the agency seeks to compel Tesla to comply with a subpoena filed on March 3. Lawyers claim they met with Tesla representatives in February and asked for dates when a witness could be available, with no outcome. The agency then gave notice to compel, which it says Tesla did not respond to until nearly a month later.

When the state's lawyers provided a virtual meeting link for an investigative deposition on March 29, Tesla objected, saying it needed more time to locate witnesses. The company also formally objected to the state's use of the subpoena power.

Both parties eventually met on April 7, when the agency requested legal authority for Tesla’s position that seeking to depose a witness was “an abuse of the subpoena power.”

“Tesla did not identify any statute or case law to support their position, and instead argued that CRD’s later noticed investigative depositions were an abuse of subpoena power,” the filing claims.

The agency adds that Tesla did not express any confusion with topics the state intended to interview a witness about until March 29.

Tesla continued not to respond to agency lawyers, resulting in the filing.

“Respondent Tesla has rebuffed CRD’s repeated efforts to obtain compliance with uncontroversial investigative discovery requests that are important tools for a government agency to investigate allegations of workplace discrimination,” according to the filing.

The Civil Rights Department wants a court order and a hearing, after which it requests that Tesla must comply with all investigative discovery requests. Tesla did not respond to a request for comment before press time.

The Civil Rights Department — charged with protecting Californians from employment and housing discrimination — claimed in its lawsuit last year that Tesla’s marketing of its vehicles to “environmentally conscious, socially responsible” buyers “masks the reality of a company that profits from an army of production workers, many of whom are people of color, working under egregious conditions.”

According to the complaint, Tesla’s Fremont factory east of San Francisco racially segregates Black workers to the “lowest levels,” asserting that they comprise approximately 20% of the factory operatives but none of the executives and only about 3% of the plant’s professionals. The complaint says the segregation and lack of Black leadership are due to a culture where complaints of racism were left unaddressed for years on end.

Tesla blasted the lawsuit as “misguided” and minimized the claims as “alleged misconduct by production associates” between 2015 and 2019.

Earlier this month, Tesla was ordered to pay $3 million for punitive damages in another racial discrimination lawsuit after a trial in San Francisco.

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Categories / Business, Civil Rights, Consumers

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