California seeks to force Tesla to comply with racial bias investigation

California regulators are taking legal action against Tesla to force the company to comply with a state investigation into allegations of unlawful harassment of and discrimination against certain Black Tesla workers.

The California Civil Rights Department (CRD) said Thursday it is seeking a court order that will run parallel to the state’s current lawsuit into allegations of employment discrimination. The agency originally filed suit in February 2022 after receiving complaints from Black workers protesting “the near-constant use of racial slurs in the workplace and the presence of racist writing and graffiti in common areas of the workplace.”

In a filing with the Alameda County Superior Court, the CRD said it had subpoenaed Tesla on March 3 for a deposition of an individual who has the most knowledge of “the alleged misconduct and related policies and procedures.” The CRD said in a statement that Tesla declined to make the individual available.

“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,” said CRD director Kevin Kish in a statement.

According to court documents, Tesla didn’t respond to the CRD’s subpoena until the end of March, when the CRD resorted to sending over a Zoom link for the deposition. Tesla did respond to that, objecting to the deposition request on the grounds that the CRD abused its investigative subpoena power.

The agency said Tesla claimed there wasn’t enough time to locate the witness. The CRD then offered a “tolling agreement,” an agreed-upon deadline between the agency and Tesla to pick a deposition date, but Tesla refused to compromise, according to court filings.

Now the CRD is seeking an order to show why Tesla hasn’t “responded fully to the investigative discovery” and to force the automaker to comply with the CRD’s requests. And as a cherry on the cake, the CRD also wants Tesla to pay for attorney fees in the amount of $1,425.

The CRD says under California law, it has the right and responsibility to investigate every complaint of civil rights violations.

“The California Civil Rights Department will not accept any attempts to obstruct our investigation,” said Kish. “My office is simply seeking to fulfill its statutory duty to investigate allegations of discrimination. Tesla is not above the law.”

Over the past year, Tesla has tried a number of methods to wriggle out of the CRD’s lawsuit. The automaker has attempted to pause the lawsuit and settle outside of court, to have the case dismissed and to petition against the CRD for allegedly failing to conduct proper investigations before suing the automaker — all of which were denied. Tesla also countersued the CRD for adopting alleged “underground regulations” in its investigations.

The California agency’s lawsuit against Tesla is one of many accusing the company of allowing harassment — both racial and sexual — to run rampant at its factories. A California judge last week ordered Tesla to pay $3.2 million to a Black former worker at its Fremont factory.

On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court allowed minority workers at the same plant to seek a court order requiring Tesla to acknowledge a climate of racial discrimination and take steps to end it.

The justices unanimously denied Tesla’s petition to appeal a ruling in January, in which two Black employees sued for damages after suffering racial discrimination at the factory. The damage suit is expected to proceed as a class action, potentially on behalf of thousands of present and past employees, according to a lawyer for the plaintiffs as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is apparently the first time such a ruling has been made in California, and it will set a precedent for trial courts statewide.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment about either the CRD’s court order or the state Supreme Court’s ruling.