A former Tesla engineer is preparing to take on Elon Musk’s company in court, alone, to accuse the tech giant of ruining her professional reputation.
Cristina Balan, a Romanian-born self-described mechanics nerd, was hired from Boeing in 2010 to help design the battery pack for the Model S all-electric luxury sedan. Her initial was stamped onto the car’s battery packaging.
Her problems began in 2014, when Musk emailed all staff to tell them to abandon the idea of a corporate hierarchy, telling them that it was a ‘dumb’ and time-consuming, outmoded way of thinking.
Cristina Balan worked for Tesla from 2010-14, and is now suing them for defamation
Elon Musk, the South African-born Tesla founder, asked for employees to raise issues
‘Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company,’ he wrote, in the text obtained by Inc.com.
‘You can talk to your manager’s manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else’s permission.
‘Moreover, you should consider yourself obligated to do so until the right thing happens.’
Balan had concerns about the foot mats in the Model S, which she said tended to curl up beneath the pedals in a potentially dangerous flaw. She believed that the company was awarding contracts for materials based on friendships, rather than quality and price.
She said interior-engineering supervisors at the time acknowledged safety issues but noted that a recall on the floor mats would have been expensive.
She emailed Musk, and requested a meeting.
A few days later, she told the Los Angeles Times, an HR manager appeared at her desk and said: ‘So you want to talk to Elon, right? Well, let’s go.’
Balan described herself as a mechanics geek, who played with pliers and machines as a child
She was led through the Fremont, California offices, and into a room where she was met with her boss and a company lawyer.
‘I knew I should have returned to my desk,’ she said. ‘This is weird, I thought. This is not going to be a meeting with Elon.’
Balan told the paper that the HR manager strongly suggested she drop her complaints about the supplier contracts.
Balan said no.
‘OK, this is your exit interview,’ Balan recalls being told.
She was handed resignation papers and asked to sign them.
When she protested, she said, a Tesla official threatened to have her led outside in handcuffs.
The official, she said, told her: ‘This is what happens if you don’t know how to keep your mouth shut.’
Balan worked for Boeing before joining Tesla in 2010 as an engineer on the Model S
Balan said she insisted on adding a line to the documents: ‘I’m resigning for the position that I was put in a month ago bc I dare to speak up to the Sr management, also bc people that had the chance to speak up were threatened.’
She was then escorted from the building by security guards.
Balan filed an arbitration case, and in 2017 The Huffington Post told her story.
Tesla communications executive Dave Arnold then demanded that the online publication run a 600-word Tesla response in full.
In part, it read: ‘Ms. Balan spent company time working on a ‘secret project’ without her manager’s approval and booked an unapproved trip to New York at Tesla’s expense to visit a potential supplier for her own personally-created project.
‘She also illegally recorded internal conversations within Tesla without anyone’s permission, which is clearly criminal conduct.’
The Huffington Post took the piece down after her complaints, although it can be found online.
She was furious at Arnold’s allegation that she had engaged in ‘clearly criminal conduct’.
She said the ‘secret project’ Arnold referred to was a windshield sun visor project she had worked on, which had attracted support from Tesla top executives, including Musk, whom she briefed personally about the technology behind it, according to emails entered into evidence.
And she said the ‘unapproved’ trip to New York was in fact the idea of Tesla’s head of manufacturing technology, Rich Heley, who emailed Balan and said: ‘You should go to ny.’
Balan says that her former employer defamed her, describing them as ‘vindictive’
Balan has struggled to find work after she left Tesla in 2010
Balan filed a defamation claim in January 2019, which is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals after a judge in Seattle ruled that she could proceed with her case. Tesla is appealing against that ruling.
Her hearing had been scheduled for last month: now it has been rescheduled to March 2021,
At the beginning of the arbitration process, Tesla’s lawyers used her employment agreement to argue the matter must remain in private arbitration and not in public court.
But Marsha J. Pechman, senior judge of the U.S. District Court in Seattle, disagreed.
In June 2019, she found that although some of Tesla’s allegations were directly related to employment and must remain in arbitration, others could be tried in federal court, including whether Balan was defamed by Tesla’s assertion of criminality.
She noted that Tesla had not made a case to back up their claims that her behavior was criminal.
Tesla lawyers had no direct answer, but then filed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
Balan is representing herself at court, in a bid to avoid ruinous law firm fees
Balan provided to the LA Times a file of documents that bear witness to her being a valued and respected member of the team.
Her case is seen as highly significant because it tests the limits of the legal practice known as mandatory arbitration: it looks at whether an arbitration agreement can follow an employee for years or even decades after they’ve left a company.
Balan is representing herself to save money. She believes that Tesla will try to wear her out financially by dragging the case through the courts as long as possible.
She said her net worth is $50,000, as she has been unable to find work since Tesla fired her.
Balan told the paper she was preparing for the appeals court hearing from a makeshift office in her 11-year-old son’s bedroom.
When he gets too noisy, she takes her iPad and moves to her car, she said.
In her defamation suit Balan is asking for legal expenses and whatever punitive damages the court sees fit.
Tesla has not responded to any requests for comment by the Times.
She said she would welcome any monetary awards, but money’s not her motivation.
‘First of all, I want to clear my name,’ she said. ‘I want to see the pride in my parents’ eyes that they’ve had for me all my life.
‘And I want to show the level of vindictiveness Tesla can go to when they want to destroy somebody.’