Here's how VC firm Kleiner Perkins will fight the $16 million discrimination suit against it

Matt Rosoff

Ellen Pao, a former partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, filed a gender discrimination suit against the firm in 2012. The trial finally got going this week.

Pao is suing for $16 million, alleging she was pressured into having a short affair with partner Ajit Nazre and that the firm discriminated against her after the affair ended. 

Kleiner's first official response to the lawsuit (known as a trial brief) sheds some light on how the company will defend itself.

In that brief, Kleiner portrays Pao as a difficult person who frequently clashed with other partners.

Here's what the firm is going to argue in defense:

  • In her first role as an aid to John Doerr, Pao often had conflicts with other partners, and those conflicts were reflected in her employee reviews throughout her time at the firm. Reviews called her "dismissive" and "political," and one said, "Ellen seems to have 'clashes' or issues with many different partners at different times. More so than I have seen with anyone else in the partnership."
  • When she was promoted to investment partner, these conflicts continued. Here, the reviews include descriptions like "territorial" and "not cited as team player."
  • Her affair with Nazre was consensual, and hercomplaints about Nazre after the affair ended were "no different than her complaints about everyone else."
  • Pao was in dire financial straits. Kleiner notes that Pao filed the lawsuit "simultaneously" with her husband filing for bankruptcy after his hedge fund failed. Pao and her husband also owed "millions" in back taxes. The implication is that Pao filed this lawsuit for financial reasons.
  • Kleiner paid Pao a higher salary than her male peers.

Kleiner will also make various other legal and procedural arguments.

The trial brief also reveals that John Doerr remained a staunch supporter even as the rest of the firm was starting to sour on her performance.

In 2011, "senior members of the digital investing team" decided she should move out of the firm and into an operating role at a portfolio company — a common move for junior partners who are not on track to become senior partners. But "staunch supporter Doerr intervened" for her, so "language regarding Pao's exit was therefore deleted from the review and replaced with a development plan expressing her performance defects and what she needed to do to improve," according to Kleiner's brief.

The firm intends to use this as evidence that she was not systematically discriminated against, as one of the firm's most powerful partners was sticking up for her.

We've reached out to attorneys representing Pao for comment, and will update this story if we hear back. Here's the full brief:

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