Mediation conference for California Civil Rights Department and Cisco set for May
On April 10, 2023 the California Civil Rights Department voluntarily dismissed its case in Superior Court against Cisco Systems engineers Sundar Iyer and Ramana Kompella, who faced allegations of caste based discrimination. A mediation conference between Cisco and the CRD is still set for May 2.
Filed nearly three years ago, CRD’s legal action made global headlines, with false claims about the Hindu religion and xenophobic depictions of people of Indian origin, eliciting widespread outrage in the Indian and Hindu American communities.
“Two Indian Americans endured a nearly three year nightmare of unending investigations, a brutal online witch hunt, and a presumption of guilt in the media after the CRD sullied their reputation alleging that they engaged in discrimination based on caste,” said Suhag Shukla, Esq., Executive Director of HAF. “We are thrilled that Iyer and Kompella have been vindicated along with our position that the state has no right to attribute wrongdoing to Hindu and Indian Americans simply because of their religion or ethnicity.”
The dismissal comes just a few months after the Hindu American Foundation filed a Section 1983 claim in US District Court asserting that CRD’s case against Cisco and the engineers infringed on the civil rights of Hindus living in California by unconstitutionally and falsely asserting that Hinduism mandates caste discrimination. HAF’s filing took no position on the facts of the case.
Sources close to the CRD case revealed that HAF’s federal civil rights claim may have played a critical role in kick starting the case dismissal. The CRD’s lead attorney pursuing the Cisco case was fired over another case, HAF’s federal claim was filed, and both the constitutional issues raised by the manner in which CRD pursued its case against Cisco and fabrication of evidence against the engineers became increasingly clear.
According to court filings, Iyer, the CEO of the division, was accused of harassment on the basis of caste despite evidence that he actively recruited “John Doe,” who self-identifies as Dalit and on whose behalf CRD filed suit, and offered Doe a generous starting package with stock grants valued in the millions.
These same court records showed that Iyer also hired at least one other self-identified Dalit who held one of the only three leadership positions in the division. This individual was also offered the other two leadership positions, including the one John Doe claimed discrimination over, prior to Doe filing his discrimination complaint.
Court filings clearly indicate that CRD was aware of the diversity within the division and despite over eight years of Doe’s employment, CRD was unable to allege anything against Iyer or Kompella that legally or factually constituted harassment.
Just before CRD dismissed its case, Iyer and Kompella echoed the legal arguments of HAF’s civil rights claim in a Motion for Sanctions against CRD and alleged that the State engaged in prosecutorial abuse and unethical conduct, including suppressing and fabricating key evidence.
In their motion, the engineers also argued that the CRD has no right to define what Hindus believe and no standing to assign them a religion or caste upon which presumptions about wrongdoing are made on the basis of their national origin or ancestry. CRD was aware of the fact that Iyer had publicly identified as an agnostic for over 20 years, and was still falsely identified as Hindu by the state.
Based on a December case management filing, CRD’s withdrawal of its case was premised on Iyer and Kompella withdrawing their motion for sanctions.
Aside from a lack of factual support, CRD also relied upon a report by an activist entity called Equality Labs to bolster its claims of widespread caste discrimination in the tech sector, including at Cisco. The judge refused to accept this report as evidence in February 2021.
None of this has stopped caste activists and reporters from presuming guilt. Resolutions from several student and faculty senates demanding the addition of “caste” to campus nondiscrimination policies at a number of colleges and universities across the country have cited both findings from the Equality Labs report and the Cisco case as definitive evidence of caste discrimination.
HAF’s legal team had been involved in the Cisco caste case since the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (renamed to the California Civil Rights Department in 2022) first sued the engineers.
HAF had previously filed a motion to intervene in state court alleging violations of the US and California constitutions’ guarantees of religious liberty, equal protection and due process, and followed that with its civil rights claim in federal court.
HAF lawyers believe that the CRD case offers important insight into consequences South Asians in California will face if state senator Aisha Wahab’s proposed caste bill that would add “caste” to state-wide nondiscrimination policies, SB 403, is implemented.
“This trial presents a cautionary tale of the legal morass that awaits Indians, Hindus and all South Asians, if the state of California adopts a policy that applies to only South Asians and institutionalizes false and negative claims that stigmatize our community” said Samir Kalra, Esq., HAF’s California based Managing Director. “If you want to know why we’re opposed to ethnically profiling South Asians with the creation of caste as a stand-alone category, this case launched by the CRD is a brutal illustration of a fate that can befall any South Asian working in the state.”
HAF’s legal team noted that the best avenue of remedy for allegations of caste or other intra-community discrimination is under existing law and categories such as national origin, ethnicity or ancestry.
A timeline and key links for the case is available here.