Ellen Pao is no longer working at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Whether she was "fired" or merely urged to begin her "transition" out of the firm depends on who you talk to.

Pao, a junior partner, filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the storied venture firm in May and has continued to go into work.

On Monday, Pao arrived at Kleiner Perkins' Sand Hill Road offices as usual. That afternoon, two partners at the firm asked her to leave.

"They told her to clean out her office, to turn in her computer, and they told her that she would no longer have access to any company documents," said Alan Exelrod, Pao's attorney, in an interview Wednesday. "They told her not to come in and not to do any work. We believe this is in retaliation for the fact that Ellen filed a discrimination lawsuit against the firm."

Though technically still employed, Pao was asked to transition off the corporate boards she serves on within 30 days. Pao was a member of the firm's "digital" team and serves on the boards of Flipboard, Lehigh Technologies and Datameer.


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"She remains an employee of the firm," said a Kleiner Perkins spokeswoman in a statement. "Because of long standing issues having no relationship or bearing on the litigation, Kleiner approached Ms. Pao to facilitate her transition, over an extended period of time, out of the firm."

Like many professional partnerships, Kleiner has an annual review process in place for its partners and employees. The firm, in its legal responses to Pao's claims, has argued that she was a poor performer who's now claiming discrimination in an attempt to blame others.

The firm's statement Wednesday added that "the proposed terms" of her separation agreement "did not require Ms. Pao to waive any legal rights or claims, are generous, fair and intended to support Ms. Pao in a successful career transition."

Pao's Twitter profile has been changed. She now describes herself as a "Team builder, technology enabler and former investor at Kleiner Perkins."

"She is not off the payroll at this point," said Exelrod. "But she's fired in the sense that she can no longer do any work. She cannot attend any more meetings."

Pao's lawsuit rocked the venture capital world. In her detailed 19-page complaint, Pao alleged that female partners by design earn less than their male peers. She said she was pressured into a sexual relationship with another junior partner. After she broke things off, she claims he retaliated by excluding her from critical meetings and email discussions.

When she complained to the firm's top executives, she said, she wasn't taken seriously.

Kleiner Perkins this summer tried to convince a San Francisco Superior Court judge that Pao should be compelled to take her claim to binding arbitration, which is usually more friendly to employers -- and is also confidential. The firm has appealed the judge's refusal, and a status conference is scheduled for February.

Pao studied electrical engineering at Princeton before earning both a law degree and an MBA from Harvard. She joined Kleiner Perkins in 2005 after stints at Microsoft, Tellme Networks and BEA Systems and worked closely with partner John Doerr, the public face of the firm who has worked to make Kleiner Perkins a model for hiring women in a male-dominated field.

Exelrod said Wednesday that he plans to file a charge with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing that will eventually be added to the existing lawsuit.

David Kadue, an employment law expert at Los Angeles legal firm Seyfarth Shaw, said Kleiner could be risking huge punitive damages if the case ever goes to trial.

"Retaliation claims are especially dangerous for employers, because juries are likely to believe that as a credible explanation" for why an employee was let go after filing suit, he said.

But Kadue -- who represents employers in such cases -- said Kleiner Perkins was smart to spell out that the incentives it offered Pao to leave didn't require that she drop the lawsuit. That could help inoculate the firm against a retaliation claim, he said.

Putting a litigious employee on paid leave or letting them go as part of a company's annual review process is sometimes the best step to eliminate a "semi-toxic environment," Kadue added.

"I think Kleiner's in an impossible situation," he said. "The big surprise is that she stayed there as long as she has."

Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706; follow her at Twitter.com/danahull. Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638; follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.