Google wins bid to block questioning of CEO Pichai in privacy lawsuit

Google CEO Sundar Pichai testifies during a remote video hearing held by subcommittees of the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on "Social Media's Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation" in Washington, U.S., March 25, 2021. U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee/Handout via Reuters
  • Court said Pichai lacks 'unique knowledge' about case issues
  • Google lawyers called bid 'fishing expedition'

(Reuters) - A California federal judge has refused to allow plaintiffs' lawyers suing Alphabet Inc's Google for alleged privacy violations to question the company's chief executive officer in pre-trial proceedings, according to an order unsealed on Monday.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen in San Jose federal court said in her ruling that Google CEO Sundar Pichai as a high-ranking executive lacked "unique knowledge" about the relevant issues in the case.

Plaintiffs often face high bars to question senior executive officials in what are called "apex" depositions.

The class action complaint filed in 2020 alleged Google violated the privacy of consumers who used the web search company's Chrome "Incognito" mode to browse the web. The lawsuit claimed Google secretly collected information from those users despite their belief they were privately browsing. Google has denied the claims.

"The challenge presented by the apex doctrine is whether a senior executive has relevant information to a particular subject," van Keulen wrote, adding that Chrome Incognito had been the "subject of extensive discovery and testimony in this action."

A Google spokesperson on Tuesday said in a statement that the court's order showed the plaintiffs' request "was unwarranted and overreaching."

A lawyer for Google at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan declined to comment.

Lawyers at Boies Schiller Flexner who are on the team representing the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an earlier ruling, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers blocked an order allowing a two-hour deposition of Pichai. But Gonzalez Rogers did not rule out a potential future deposition of Pichai, and so the plaintiffs renewed their effort to question him.

The plaintiffs' lawyers said in a court filing in July that the evidence in the case "far exceeds what was deemed sufficient to depose CEOs in many other cases."

They argued Pichai has personal knowledge “about key issues in this case, including Google's perpetuation of known browsing misconceptions." The attorneys sought a chance to question Pichai for 3.5 hours.

Google's lawyers, fighting the effort, told the court that the plaintiffs "have made no showing that Mr. Pichai made the Incognito-related decisions" that they "misattribute" to him.

"This fishing expedition must finally come to an end," Quinn Emanuel partner Andrew Shapiro told the court.

The plaintiffs' bid for class certification is set for a hearing on Oct. 11.

The case is Brown v Google LLC, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, No. 4:20-cv-03664-YGR.

For Brown: Mark Mao of Boies Schiller Flexner; Bill Carmody of Susman Godfrey; and John Yanchunis of Morgan & Morgan

For Google: Andrew Schapiro of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan

(NOTE: This article was updated to include comment from Google.)

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