Former Uber program to “greyball” riders draws attention to ethics rules

March 16, 2017

By Karen Rubin

This is a good one for the law school legal ethics class I’m teaching this semester: If a company’s chief legal officer approves a policy that may be legal in itself, but the CLO knows that the company will use it to evade the law, has the CLO violated ethics rules?

An analogous question arose last week when the New York Times reported that Uber Technologies Inc. used specially-developed software in order to avoid law enforcement stings in cities where Uber’s ride-sharing operation was facing local government opposition.

Within a few days of the report, Uber announced that it had halted the practice, called “greyballing,” which had been used in the U.S. and overseas.  Uber said that the practice was part of its broader efforts to halt all rider conduct that violates its terms of use.

However, the situation still provides a setting in which to consider Model Rule 1.2(d) and your ethics obligations if a client seeks your help in conduct that may be deemed to be pushing the legal envelope.

“Greyballing” a potential rider

As reported by the Times, starting in 2014, Uber apparently put policies in place in cities like Boston, Portland, Oregon and Las Vegas to identify users Uber thought might be city investigators or inspectors who were arranging for rides in order to conduct stings on operations that law enforcement officials questioned as violating city regulations.

After facing initial opposition in many cities where gaps in local regulations made it easy to launch its services, Uber eventually reached agreements with cities so that it could operate lawfully.

But before that point, as the Times described it, “law enforcement officials in some cities … impounded vehicles or issued tickets to UberX drivers, with Uber generally picking up those costs on the drivers’ behalf.  The company has estimated thousands of dollars in lost revenue for every vehicle impounded and ticket received,” the Times said.

To avoid these costs, Uber would try to identify law enforcement officers and keep them out of its drivers’ cars — “greyballing” them.  The digital techniques Uber used to do that included reviewing credit card information to see whether the card was linked to some official institution (e.g., a police credit union), drawing a “geofence” around government offices, and not picking up anyone seeking a ride from there, and searching social media profiles to identify people who seemed to be linked to law enforcement.

When someone who had been “greyballed” did successfully hail an Uber, the company could call the driver in order to end the ride.

What should counsel consider?

Model Rule 1.2(d) bars counseling a client to engage in criminal or fraudulent conduct, or assisting the client in doing so.  But was Uber’s “greyballing” program used for unlawful ends?  If not, there is no legal ethics issue to discuss.  And we certainly do not know what Uber’s legal team considered in advising Uber about the program.

Rule 1.2(d) of course permits discussing with the client “the legal consequences of any proposed course of conduct” and assisting the client in making “a good faith effort to determine the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law.”  A lawyer who conforms to that standard is on good ground.

Likewise, comment [9] notes the difference between opining about consequences and “assisting” in unlawful conduct.  And the “fact that a client uses advice in a course of action that is criminal or fraudulent” does not of itself “make a lawyer a party to the course of action.”  “Presenting an analysis of legal aspects of questionable conduct” is OK; but “recommending the means by which a crime or fraud might be committed with impunity” is not.

Be careful out there…

If you are in a grey area (no pun intended!), where it may be unclear whether you are counseling your client about the bounds of the law or whether you are possibly assisting with improper conduct, it pays to be careful, and to consider getting an outside view about your possible actions.  Check your jurisdiction’s version of Model Rule 1.6(b)(4), which permits you to disclose a client’s confidential information as reasonably necessary in order to obtain legal advice about your compliance with the ethics Rules.

Content courtesy of The Law for Lawyers Today: Ethics, Professional Responsibility and More blog. Ohio State Bar Association member Karen Rubin is an attorney for Thompson Hine.


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