An early Uber investor, Benchmark Capital, is suing the ride-sharing company's former chief executive Travis Kalanick over claims of misconduct and fraud by creating additional board seats at Uber in 2016.
The lawsuit filed in a Delaware Chancery Court on Thursday accuses Kalanick of concealing a range of misdeeds from the board and scheming to retain power at the company even after he was forced to resign as chief executive of Uber in June following a series of scandals.
"Kalanick's continuing efforts to insert himself into Uber's board and business, even after embroiling Uber in multiple scandals and being forced to resign as CEO, have further depressed the value of Uber stock on the secondary market," the filing said.
A spokesman for Travis Kalanick described the lawsuit as "completely baseless" and "riddled with lies," but stopped short of pointing out specific inaccuracies. In a statement, he said this was an attempt to deprive Kalanick of his rights as an Uber founder and shareholder. "Travis will continue to act in the interests of Uber and all of its stakeholders and is confident that these entirely baseless claims will be rejected."
The extraordinary legal action is the latest twist in a boardroom drama that has intensified in recent months. Already the board has been unable to agree on a new chief executive, who will have the challenge of salvaging the company's tarnished image.
Benchmark Capital is a major early investor holding 13 percent of Uber's stock and controlling 20 percent of the voting power. Kalanick controls around 16 percent of the voting rights and 10 percent of the ordinary shares.
The venture capital firm claims Uber's former CEO concealed material information from investors when he created three new board seats in 2016 and gave himself the right to appoint people to those seats. It suspects that Kalanick is trying to pack Uber's board with his allies and eventually return to his post as CEO.
Benchmark wants to remove the three additional seats and return the board to eight members. It's also asking the court to prevent Kalanick from participating in board meetings.
In addition, the lawsuit said Kalanick didn't discuss his failure to curb Uber's pervasive culture of discrimination and sexual harassment. Kalanick resigned under pressure in June after alleged misconduct in handling a rape committed by an Uber driver in India.
Benchmark also argues Kalanick knew Uber might be accused of stealing trade secrets from Waymo, Google parent Alphabet's self-driving car unit. Benchmark claims that Kalanick withheld key information from the board last year, including a due diligence report that would have illuminated the risks related to the acquisition of Otto, a self-driving truck company. Waymo later sued Uber, alleging the theft of trade secrets related to the deal.
Currently, Uber is seeking not only a CEO but also a number of other senior executives, and for now is being run by a group of 14 employees. Uber co-founder and Chairman Garrett Camp wrote a letter to employees earlier this week stating that "Travis is not returning as CEO," after reports that Kalanick was hoping to reclaim the top job.
Ben Narasin, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist also believes that Kalanick is not making a comeback as Uber CEO. "The combination of this lawsuit and his co-founder's statement that he's not coming back are pretty strong statements. Put a fork in it. He [Kalanick] is done," he told the news agency Reuters.
Still, the case could be a tough one for Benchmark to win, said Erik Gordon, an entrepreneurship expert at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.
"Even if you assume that Kalanick acted outrageously improperly, where was Benchmark when he was acting out?" Gordon told Reuters. "Did Benchmark fight tooth and nail against Kalanick's conduct, or were they willing to put up with it as long as the company's valuation, and the value of their investment in it, skyrocketed?"
uhe/kd (Reuters, dpa, AFP)