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For the attorney representing Uber drivers, the fight to settle employee classification lawsuits gets messy

And just a little bit personal.

New York Uber Drivers Protest Rate Cuts Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Shannon Liss-Riordan, the attorney representing drivers in California and Massachusetts in a pair of lawsuits against Uber, was often portrayed by the media as a dogged attorney out for blood over the course of the last year. To Uber drivers, she was one of the few people who stood up for what many of them always felt they deserved. It boiled down to employee benefits, and Liss-Riordan was the lone warrior fighting to get them just that.

Last month — after 18 hearings, 23 hours of court time, 23 motions and 287 pages of legal decisions — Liss-Riordan decided to settle the case, in which she alleged that drivers were incorrectly classified as independent contractors. In her words, proceeding to trial was too risky. Settling was the only answer.

"If this settlement is scuttled, there is no guarantee that Uber drivers will get anything, because anything could happen," she wrote in a response to recent objections to the terms of the settlement.

But to some drivers — described by Liss-Riordan as a vocal minority — settling was a sign that Liss-Riordan sold out. The lone warrior, many claimed, was in the pocket of the ride-hail behemoth that denied them their well-earned right to employee benefits. She was just in it for the money, some argued. One of the key plaintiffs in the case, Douglas O'Connor, went as far as appointing a new attorney to file an objection to the settlement in court.

"[The deal] is not in my interest or in the interest of any Uber driver," O'Connor wrote in his objection.

On Friday, Liss-Riordan added yet another filing to the case's docket and responded to the objections expressed by O'Connor and others. Only 33 drivers, Liss-Riordan wrote, contacted her office to express their disapproval of the settlement. Some 71 wrote in to thank her. Emails from more than 30 drivers approving the terms of the settlement accompanied her response, which accused O'Connor's attorney, Mark Geragos, among others, of glossing over the risks of proceeding to trial.

One of a sample of emails from Uber drivers in response to the settlement of a pair of employee misclassification lawsuits.

"None of [the objections to the settlement] have really addressed the [risks of litigation]," Liss-Riordan wrote. "Of these risks, two stand as stark possibilities: First, that the Ninth Circuit, or the United States Supreme Court, could enforce Uber’s arbitration provision (and, with respect to the Supreme Court, even decide that PAGA claims are subject to individual arbitration), and, second, that a jury may not find in the class’s favor on the misclassification issue."

Liss-Riordan, who claimed in her response that many of the attorneys who objected to the settlement had waged "outrageous" personal attacks on her in their claims, questioned the motivation of many of these attorneys who have jumped at the opportunity to object to the settlement.

"Notably, some of the loudest objections to this settlement come from lawyers who do not practice in this field (of independent contractor misclassification, wage and hour law, or even employment law), including a “celebrity lawyer,” and other attorneys whose practice areas focus on products liability and personal injury," she wrote. "Some might suggest that they have done so out of their own self-interest, since no reasonable attorney could seriously argue that a $100 million settlement, in the face of multiple risks that could mean recovering nothing, is inadequate."

"Others might suggest that these same attorneys would have settled for a fraction of this amount were they given the opportunity, and that Uber drivers are tremendously fortunate to have experienced Counsel negotiating on their behalves," Liss-Riordan continued.

Her arguments in favor of the settlement are the same: It was hard-fought, it's a lot of money, drivers also received non-monetary benefits that many have always asked for, and it was too risky to proceed further.

But as confident as she is in the fairness of the settlement, if the terms of the settlement are rejected, Liss-Riordan is ready to go to battle once again.

"Plaintiffs and their counsel are well prepared — and more than willing — to litigate the case in the Ninth Circuit — and even to the Supreme Court if it advanced that far — and then to trial, hopefully on behalf of the class that was certified by this Court."

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