A former recruiter for Google is suing its parent company, Alphabet, for alleged disability discrimination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and a failure to provide reasonable accommodations. Among a slew of upsetting allegations, the complaint says that instead of sending her medical devices and other personal items following her termination, someone at Google mailed her a bag of garbage.
Filed this month with the San Francisco County Superior Court seeking the award of lost wages and other compensatory damages, the complaint describes how a woman with a nervous system disorder was allegedly mistreated throughout the duration of her employment at Google, until the very end. In years past, we may not have learned of these allegations at all due to Google’s former policy of requiring employees to lodge complaints against the company, like this one, behind closed doors.
Despite Google scrapping its mandatory arbitration policy for new and current employees earlier this year, however, the company has so far tried to keep this case out of the courtroom, according to the plaintiff’s attorney. The question now is how hard Alphabet will fight to keep former Google employees—those who left the company before the policy change—bound by a problematic policy Google has otherwise eliminated for its staff.
In February, following protests from the company’s employees, Google announced that it had ended its practice of requiring new hires to sign forced arbitration agreements. The policy change was widely celebrated as a win for worker rights and a positive evolution for the technology giant. However, this lawsuit will test the extent to which Google will continue to pursue closed-door settlements for workers who remain bound by mandatory arbitration agreements.
Gina Mercieri worked for Google from October 2016 through October 2018, according to the complaint. She has Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), which results in chronic pain. The illness, nicknamed the “suicide disease,” has no cure. During the hiring process, the suit alleges, Mercieri told Google that she would need accommodations for her disability, such as a place to lie down due to spinal pain caused by her condition. She was allegedly told that Google was a place where “differences were celebrated.”According to the complaint, one of her managers would later tell her that “a person like [her]” should feel “lucky to be at Google.”
During the spring of 2017, Mercieri’s team was moved to a Google satellite office located at a “Superfund” toxic waste site, according to the complaint. (A Superfund site has been identified by the government as needing cleanup due to unhealthy levels of dangerous contaminants.) The Center for Investigative Reporting obtained a report to the Environmental Protection Agency that revealed that Google employees at this Superfund site, located three miles from the company’s Mountain View headquarters, may have been exposed to excessive levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) for at least two months in 2013 after workers caused the office’s ventilation system to work improperly.
Some four years after the TCE incident, according to the complaint, Mercieri’s doctors were worried about her potential exposure to this toxic chemical due to her disorder, which compromises her immune system. Google “was either unable or unwilling to provide documents stating it was safe for a person with a compromised immune system to be exposed to TCE,” the suit alleges. The complaint further claims that Google “took months” to provide Mercieri with accommodations.
Shortly after Mercieri returned from disability leave from mid-March to mid-April of last year, her manager at the time, who is unnamed in the lawsuit, gave her a poor performance rating, the complaint claims. She was allegedly told during a review that she “sucks at her job” and that it was “given to [her] on a silver plate” by the person who offered her the position—and that “her hand would not be held” and she “should feel lucky to be working at Google”—a phrase Mercieri allegedly heard repeatedly during her time at the company. When Mercieri allegedly told the manager she was going to report her review to HR, the manager laughed and said “good luck,” according to the complaint.
Later that summer, Mercieri learned that she would need surgery, the complaint says, but based on comments from her manager in response to this need, as well as her previous interactions with leadership, she allegedly put off her surgery for fear that her absence would result in retaliatory efforts, possibly the loss of her job. But around October, she told her manager that, “because her pain was becoming worse,” she couldn’t postpone the surgery any longer, and planned to have it in the fall, according to the complaint. Her manager allegedly laughed and said “well, we will see if this happens.”
On October 15 last year, the complaint says, Mercieri was informed over email while she was on sick leave that she had been terminated. When she asked that her personal items be sent to her—which included medical devices, such as oxygen canisters, as well as prescription drugs, clothing, circulation mats, and items of sentimental value—she never received them, according to the complaint. “Instead, she received from Google a box of trash, including perishable and rotting food items, and a tampon that was either used or given the appearance of being used,” the complaint reads. Mercieri claimed that none of these items were things she had kept at work and that she still hasn’t received the requested personal items.
Mercieri’s complaint also alleges that, in 2017, she spoke with the head of Google’s diversity and inclusion department to describe her experience at the company. She also says she was asked to lead monthly meetings of the company’s Disability Alliance. According to the complaint, however, her manager told her to “stay in [her] lane,” “focus on the work [she was] given,” and “be grateful [she was] working [there].” Mercieri then reached out to Google’s anonymous line for employees experiencing misconduct or discrimination, the complaint says.
While Google announced it would stop requiring employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements last month, this only applies to current staff and those who join the company after March 21. (The policy change does not apply to other Alphabet subsidiaries.) Mercieri, who was hired at the company in 2016, was employed at Google when the company included arbitration agreements in its contracts, which means she may be legally prevented from having her dispute heard in a trial by jury.
Indeed, Mercieri’s attorney, Rory C. Quintana, told Gizmodo that Alphabet’s attorneys requested that he withdraw Mercieri’s case and move to arbitration. They have not, according to Quintana. If Mercieri and her attorney don’t agree to refile in arbitration, Alphabet can file a motion to compel them to do so, which is ultimately decided by the court.
Google has not responded to our request to comment on the allegations leveled in the complaint and whether they will attempt to force Mercieri’s case into arbitration.
Quintana said that he believes that parts of Mercieri’s complaint are out of the scope of arbitration, citing allegations of intentional infliction of emotional distress and conversion—the intentional interference of someone else’s personal property.
It may very well be in Google’s right to settle this dispute in arbitration, given Mercieri was employed prior to the company’s elimination of its forced arbitration agreements for staff. But if Google does continue to push back against Mercieri’s wishes to have her case heard by a jury rather than quietly behind closed doors by an arbiter, it shows the limits of the company’s commitments to ending this practice.