Karine Jean-Pierre
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Blockbuster Suit Against Tesla Alleges Antigay Harassment and More

Tesla solar panel

Three former employees of Tesla’s energy sales division have filed a lawsuit alleging antigay harassment, age discrimination, failure to pay them for all hours worked, and retaliation for complaining about working conditions and fake sales accounts created by other employees.

All three were San-Diego-based sales representatives for solar panels, a business Tesla entered by acquiring SolarCity in November 2016. All three were let go by the company at the end of May 2017, according to the suit, a copy of which was obtained by The Advocate.

Tesla says the three were terminated as part of a restructuring of sales operations. It denies that they were mistreated or that the company retaliatied against them, and also says it investigated the claim of fake sales accounts and found it baseless.

In the suit, filed last Wednesday in California Superior Court for San Diego County, one of the employees, Andrew Staples, who is gay, alleges that he was subjected to repeated antigay harassment by a supervisor from another department. This person, identified in the suit as Grant Katzenellenbogen, called Staples names including “bitch,” “pussy,” and “faggot,” the filing relates, “on numerous different days throughout his employment.”

Staples says he complained to numerous managers, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, but no disciplinary action was taken against Katzenellenbogen. Also, Staples claims the company retaliated against him, preventing him from closing sales, and eventually fired him “under a false pretext” on May 31, 2017.

“Plaintiff Staples is informed and believes and thereon alleges that his sexual orientation was a substantial motivating reason for Defendants decision to discharge him,” in violation of California law, the suit reads.

Ray, who was terminated last year at age 59, alleges age discrimination, also banned by California law. He was told his job was being eliminated as part of a mass layoff, but the mass layoff affected a different set of employees, he contends in the suit. He says his position was actually not eliminated, and he was replaced with an employee who was under 30 years old.

Both men and a third plaintiff, Anqunetta White, say they complained to the company about “fake potential sales accounts” created by other employees. These “were not only used to support unjustified bonuses for those employees but also disseminated to investors and shareholders to justify an unreasonably high valuation of SolarCity, which Plaintiffs believed constituted fraud,” according to the suit. Their termination by the company was retaliation for their complaints, they say.

They also say Tesla failed to pay them all wages owed to them, including overtime, and did not provide them with adequate meal and rest breaks.

The three, represented by Los Angeles law firm Makerem and Associates, seek back wages and an unspecified amount in damages, plus attorneys’ fees and any other relief the court may see fit.

Tesla has been involved in several other pieces of litigation. Some suits have claimed management failed to stop antigay and racial harassment, and a former employee who was sued by the company for allegedly stealing trade secrets recently countersued Tesla for defamation.

The company has also been much in the news for other reasons, such as Musk’s June donation of $38,900 to Protect the House, a political action committee seeking to maintain the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Musk has responded to criticism by saying he’s donated to both major political parties.

Regarding the lawsuit by Staples, Ray, and White, a Tesla spokesperson provided The Advocate with the following statement: “The plaintiffs’ roles were eliminated last year when, as part of Tesla’s integration with SolarCity, we decided to close our door-to-door sales channel for energy products, and the suggestion that they were eliminated for any other reason is false. Tesla is absolutely against any form of discrimination, harassment, or unfair treatment of any kind by or against anyone. After examining the timecards of applicable employees, Human Resources confirmed that employees were paid properly and invited them to submit a list of unpaid hours if they disagreed, so we could review it and confirm proper payment. The one hourly plaintiff never identified any hours for which she was not paid.”

Also, in a statement to Business Insider, a Tesla representative said of the alleged false sales accounts, “We have seen absolutely nothing that suggests there were ‘fake potential sales accounts.’”

Tesla has received a perfect score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s two most recent editions of its Corporate Equality Index, and HRC has ranked among the best places for LGBT people to work.

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