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Shukh v. Seagate Technology, LLC

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 31, 2014


James H. Kaster and Christina Parra Herrera, NICHOLS KASTER, PLLP, and Constantine John Gekas, GEKAS LAW, LTD., for plaintiff.

Charles F. Knapp, Calvin L. Litsey and Elizabeth Cowan Wright, FAEGRE BAKER DANIELS LLP, and Sarah E. Benjes, FAEGRE BAKER DANIELS LLP, for defendants.


JOHN R. TUNHEIM, District Judge.

Plaintiff Alexander M. Shukh filed this action against Defendants Seagate Technology, LLC, Seagate Technology, Inc., Seagate Technology, and Seagate Technology, PLC (collectively, "Seagate"), alleging numerous claims arising out of Seagate's eleven-year employment and eventual termination of Shukh. Shukh filed a complaint in February 2010 asserting thirteen claims against Seagate. After four years of litigation only Shukh's claims under Title VII and the Minnesota Human Rights Act ("MHRA") for employment discrimination and retaliation based upon his national origin remain. Seagate now moves for summary judgment on these claims. Because Shukh has failed to present evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that Seagate discriminated or retaliated against Shukh based on his national origin, the Court will grant Seagate's motion for summary judgment in its entirety.[1]


This employment termination case has been the subject of extensive litigation spanning four years, involving nineteen hearings before the Court, more than fifty Court orders, and over 500 docket entries. The parties have produced thousands of pages of record material, and have presented the facts identified in the following background section as relevant to the present motion. As the Court's analysis will show, many of these facts are irrelevant to the ultimate legal question presented by Shukh's remaining claims - did Seagate discriminate against Shukh because of his national origin or retaliate against him for making complaints based on perceived discrimination. For the sake of completeness and to demonstrate that the Court has fully considered the myriad conflicts and incidents of mistreatment Shukh alleges he suffered at the hands of Seagate, the Court will lay out the facts identified by the parties before addressing the legal merits of the present motion.


Shukh was born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1953 when Belarus was still part of the former Soviet Union. (Decl. of Sarah Benjes, Ex. 1 (Dep. of Alexander M. Shukh ("Shukh Dep.") 10:17-11:24), Apr. 1, 2013, Docket No. 468.) Shukh describes his national origin as Belarusian, Soviet, and Russian. (Shukh Dep. 10:25-11:1, 357:13-15.)[3] Shukh speaks both Belarusian and Russian. ( Id. 11:20-12:2.) Shukh also speaks English with a strong accent. ( Id. 361:17-25.)

Shukh holds a Ph.D. in Condensed Matter Physics and a B.S. and M.S. in Electronics and Electronic Engineering. (Fourth Decl. of Constantine John Gekas, Ex. 12, July 20, 2012, Docket No. 324.) Shukh is recognized as one of the leading scientists in his field, and his reputation has been one of an extremely successful innovator in the hard disk drives engineering community. (Benjes Decl., Ex. 12 at 28.) Prior to 1997, Shukh had over twenty-three years of experience in his field and was "recognized internationally as outstanding in the field of hard disk drive magnetic recording." (Fourth Gekas Decl., Exs. 12, 14.)


In 1997 Shukh was working in Minsk, Belarus, at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radio Electronics as a researcher. (Third Am. Compl. ¶ 35, Jan. 17, 2012, Docket No. 268.) Seagate recruited Shukh after observing his presentations at an international scientific conference in Louisiana. ( Id. ¶¶ 36-37.) Shukh interviewed with numerous Seagate employees before Seagate offered him a position. ( Id. ¶ 38; Shukh Dep. 584:7-24.) In September 1997 Shukh began working at Seagate's office in Bloomington, Minnesota, as a Senior Advisory Development Engineer. (Third Am. Compl. ¶ 33; Shukh Dep. 31:3-9.) After Shukh began his employment, Seagate sponsored Shukh for an H-1B work visa, a visa extension, and finally permanent residency status. (Third Am. Compl. ¶¶ 80-81.)

A. Inventorship Accomplishments at Seagate

During his tenure at Seagate, Shukh was named as an inventor on seventeen Seagate patents, and several of his inventions have been incorporated into Seagate products. (Shukh Dep. 415:9-13; Fourth Gekas Decl., Ex. 13 ¶¶ 14-15; Eighth Decl. of Chad Drown, Exs. 1-18, Apr. 1, 2013, Docket No. 475.) Shukh has received numerous awards from Seagate including awards for outstanding achievement and innovation generally as well as awards for his role in inventing specific products. (Fourth Gekas Decl., Ex. 12 at 2; Benjes Decl., Ex. 9; Shukh Dep. 496:21-24.) Seagate also named Shukh to the Seagate Hall of Fame for Outstanding Inventions. (Shukh Dep. 495:21-24.)

Shukh was widely recognized during his employment at Seagate as having excellent technical skills and being an outstanding innovator. ( Id. 246:1-10.) Shukh's managers consistently gave Shukh the highest ratings on performance evaluations of his knowledge, innovation, and creativity. (Decl. of Douglas Engelke, Ex. 4 at 0110-0111, Ex. 5 at 0101, 0103, Ex. 6 at 0223, Ex. 7 at 0214-0215, Ex. 8 at 0208, Apr. 1, 2013, Docket No. 469; Benjes Decl., Ex. 20.) Shukh's coworkers also testified that Shukh had a reputation as "a very good design person" with a "strong reputation for technical knowledge." (Benjes Decl., Ex. 2 (Dep. of Frank E. Stageberg ("Stageberg Dep.") 102:8-14).) Additionally, in sponsoring Shukh for the immigration statuses necessary to maintain his employment, Seagate consistently represented to immigration officials that Shukh was an outstanding researcher in his field and was an extremely valuable asset to Seagate. ( See, e.g., Fourth Gekas Decl., Exs. 14, 15.)

B. General Competitiveness and Ability to Work with Others

Shukh testified that he has a competitive nature that "sometimes create[s] a lot of issue[s] for others." (Shukh Dep. 247:21-23.) Shukh testified "I was discriminated [against] by Seagate because I'm different. I'm different [in] nationality, the language I speak, my accent, my culture, to some extent because I am challenging. I like to challenge the problem and I was asking question[s], technical questions." ( Id. 379:23-380:5.) As an example of some of the issues his nature created for coworkers, Shukh testified that he applies a "three-strikes" rule to his interactions with coworkers. ( Id. 271:8-18.) Under the three-strikes rule if a coworker engages in dishonest behavior three times, Shukh "just stop[s] talking to him." ( Id. 271:13-23, 351:4-8.)

1. Shukh's Managers

Shukh testified that most, but not all of his managers, described him as having a difficult time working with other people. ( Id. 270:3-12.) For example, Shukh recalled that one of his managers had told him that he was "too competitive" and "too tough in playing by the rules." ( Id. 360:17-19.) Early in Shukh's career at Seagate, performance evaluations from these managers reflected that he was too straightforward in criticizing other employees and their work. ( Id. 243:5-244:12; 245:1-11, 369:21-370:12 (discussing evaluations in 1999 and 2003).) Shukh testified that his direct style in confronting coworkers about technical issues was a cultural difference, and coworkers in the United States took direct questions and discussions about technical issues more personally than his colleagues in Belarus. ( Id. 370:1-12.)

For example, in 1999 Shukh received a rating of three out of five for organizational relationships in an evaluation from his manager at the time, Ed Murdock. (Engelke Decl., Ex. 4.) The evaluation stated that

Alex sometimes tends to sabotage recognition and appreciation of his knowledge and efforts and to create unnecessary antagonism by advocating his ideas without doing his own critical evaluation of their strengths and weaknesses first. Also, he has shown a tendency to implicitly put down the knowledge and experience of other engineers by comments in meetings such as "that's clearly wrong" or "I know the answer" when contradicting or disputing others' work. People who know Alex well realize that this arises from a sense of enthusiasm for new ideas, but he needs to work harder to listen to and appreciate other peoples' ideas.... On numerous occasions, he has discounted the data, reservations or ideas of others as he expresses confidence in his own ideas. This has cut off discussion and leads to friction with other members of the work group.

( Id., Ex. 4 at 0111.) Shukh was given an opportunity to respond to the evaluation and stated that he agreed with the evaluation of his organizational relationship skills, but stated that these difficulties were a result of practices learned in his "former country" and he understood "that this culture is not acceptable at [a] western company." ( Id., Ex. 4 at 0113.)

A 2001 evaluation from manager Pat Ryan echoed Murdock's concerns, and scored Shukh at a three out of five for organizational relationships. ( Id., Ex. 5 at 0103.) Ryan noted that

Dr. Shukh will continue to be plagued by organizational relationship controversies until he learns to disagree without being disagreeable. Also he needs to understand that once an issue has been thoroughly debated and a conclusion has been reached, it is very destructive to publicly insist on one[']s minority point of view. The goal is not to have a muzzled or docile posture but to know where to draw the line. He must also learn to trust his management chain to sort out controversial and interpersonal issues fairly and to ensure that he receives the accolades and recognition that he deserves.... I will not hesitate to issue a failing grade in the future if I don't see improvement in Dr. Shukh's ability to exercise good judgment when conflicts arise.

( Id. ) In 2002, Shukh was given a "learning" rating (the rating one step above unsatisfactory) by manager Sining Mao for his "Respect for People." ( Id., Ex. 6 at 0224.) Mao noted that Shukh needed to "understand differences between [people and get] the job done for team success. Put per[so]nal ego behind." ( Id. ) A 2004 evaluation from Ryan noted that Shukh's "delivery of... insightful comments can be improved, " and that "all people are different. We need to keep this in mind, and assume that everybody is trying to do their best." ( Id., Ex. 7 at 0214.) Shukh responded that

it is very difficult to respect a person that cheats on you and your colleagues, [is] dishonest, has a h[a]bit to steal somebody's ideas and presents them as their own, etc. In this situation there is only [one] way to keep [a] reasonable relationship with this person: try to reduce the interference with this person up to the possible limit.... Respect between people can be established on the mutual basis only. If somebody does not respect you how can you respect him/her? It's impossible. Personally, I experienced many times with a hid[den] disrespect and all [of] my appeals to managers were without response.

( Id., Ex. 7 at 0217.) A 2006 evaluation gave Shukh the second best score for "respect for people" and "teamwork" but similarly instructed Shukh to "work to cultivate relationships with colleagues" and to "make an effort to ensure people feel that you are listening to what they have to say and are giving consideration to their positions." (Benjes Decl., Ex. 20 at 46205.) That evaluation also noted "[y]ou speak honestly and do not seek to mislead people. You can at times be harsh with others and I would like to see you work toward being more positive in your interactions with your colleagues." ( Id., Ex. 20 at 46206.) With respect to these evaluations, Shukh testified that he received poor evaluations despite his "absolutely outstanding performance, " based solely on the difference in his "cultural behavior." (Shukh Dep. 384:7-17.)

Shukh made several references to his belief that Seagate managers were personally biased against him in responding to his performance reviews. In responsive comments to his performance review for the time period between July 1, 2003 and June 30, 2004, Shukh stated:

People make a difference [in] every organization. This is a well-known postulate. The right people [in] the right place is a major component of any company success. People are very sensitive to results of their evaluation. Therefore, a manager has a big responsibility evaluating [the] performance of his/her engineers or technicians. Any personal bias in this situation is forbidden. However, I feel there is a bias to me from my managers. I have [had] this feeling for a long time. [The] [n]ice thing is that I know the reason for that and can forgive them this bias to some exten[t]. At the end, I would like to make a comment about [the] existing system of evaluation. [In] my mind, the existing system is too subjective.

(Engelke Decl., Ex. 7 at 0218.) Shukh also referenced his perception of bias in his comments to his evaluation for 2006. (Benjes Decl., Ex. 20.) Shukh stated:

Management style [on the team] is not a secret to me. I found out long ago that there is a strong bias to me from the management team. This is a fact. I do not pretend to change it since this is useless. I do know that [I] cannot be promoted to a higher position even though the company makes millions of dollars per year by using my inventions, my head designs and my technical proposals.... I would like to give to the management team one suggestion: please change some [of] Seagate's policies such as "Equal Employment Opportunity", "Performance Management", "Rewards and Recognition", etc. since they are in... serious contradiction with... reality. Also, I can give the management team [a] couple of hints for future evaluations of my performance. You can always give me [an "excellent" rating (the second highest rating out of four)] for not going to cafe during lunch time, for a strong Russian accent, etc. I just don't know how the management team can expect a high performance from [an] employee by treating him like this.

(Benjes Decl., Ex. 20 at 46207.)

Kenneth Allen, who managed Shukh during his last three years of employment at Seagate testified that "Alex has probably the single largest ego of any human being I ever met. And he is incapable of taking input from others at the level he needs to to work in teams." (Benjes Decl., Ex. 15 (Dep. of Kenneth D. Allen ("Allen Dep.") 180:12-15).) Allen also testified that "[i]n general, Alex had a tendency in public forums, meetings, to accuse other people of stealing his ideas. He had a tendency to say they were stupid; only his ideas were right.... He was basically sort of insulting in a very personal way - not critiquing the work necessarily, but being insulting in a very personal way." (Allen Dep. 149:3-10.) Additionally, Allen testified that Shukh's difficulty working with others increased during his time at Seagate and that over time he "slowly alienated just about every designer in the recording heads operations." ( Id. 127:20-128:4.)

2. Shukh's Coworkers

Some of Shukh's coworkers testified that at Seagate, Shukh had "a reputation of [being] sometimes hard to work with, " (Stageberg Dep. 103:20-25, 105:2-20; Benjes Decl., Ex. 16 (Dep. of Taras Pokhil ("Pokhil Dep.") 140:4-7)) being patronizing in presentations, and having a very high opinion of himself, (Pokhil Dep. 142:2-24). Seagate's brief in support of its motion for summary judgment cites a number of instances that it argues demonstrate the difficulty Shukh had working with others. Shukh contests the nature and extent of each of these incidents. Although some of these events are only peripherally related to the discrimination and retaliation claims at issue, for completeness, this Order presents a version of each story viewing the record facts in the light most favorable to Shukh.

In 2001 a controversy occurred between Niru Sharma, a Seagate engineer working in the Springfield office, and Shukh. (Allen Dep. 99:5-9.) Shukh discovered that portions of Sharma's presentation contained ideas and designs he believed should have been accredited to him. ( Id. 99:16-20.) Shukh wrote an email to Sharma stating that "I didn't have a chance to know you personally but the very first impression about you isn't very good." (Benjes Decl., Ex. 17.) Shukh requested that Sharma "please immediately make corrections in all presented materials" and warned her that "[w]hat you did in your presentation is [a] violation of corporate policy and some other laws. I hope you did that without intention." ( Id. ) Allen testified that Shukh's reaction to Sharma was "less than constructive" because "it wasn't clear that there was any real or actual offense" and that "it doesn't tend to be the best way to further your ongoing working relationship by accusing the other person of, you know, unfair practices without at least working through the process first." (Allen Dep. 99:16-100:10.) Shortly after the incident, Allen reviewed the documents and sent an email in which he "agree[d] that Alex's name should have been prominently included in the package since he did most/all of the design and simulation work." (Ninth Decl. of Constantine John Gekas, Ex. 6, May 6, 2013, Docket No. 489; Shukh Dep. 728:8-730:8.) Allen concluded, "Let's take these actions and then take a chill pill. When things we don't like happen, we each get to decide how to react. I'm going to assume this was a simple oversight on Niru's part - this can be easily corrected." (Ninth Gekas Decl., Ex. 6.)

The record also contains evidence of an incident with coworker Eric Linville. (Allen Dep. 152:6-12.) During a meeting, Linville allegedly expressed concern that one of Shukh's designs would not work. (Ninth Gekas Decl., Ex. 7; Shukh Dep. 818:6-17.) Shukh responded that he was surprised by the comments since Linville had been involved in the modeling of the design at issue. (Ninth Gekas Decl., Ex. 7; Shukh Dep. 818:6-17.) Linville asked to see certain materials, and after the meeting came to Shukh's office. (Ninth Gekas Decl., Ex. 7.) Shukh testified that Linville "jump[ed]" into Shukh's cubicle, raised his hand over Shukh, and said "Go to the street." (Shukh Dep. 354:15-20.) During the incident, Shukh also stated that Linville repeatedly called him an idiot. (Ninth Gekas Decl., Ex. 7.) With respect to Linville, Shukh further testified "[h]e attacked me, called me to the street, used all my designs. He is [a] horrible person." (Shukh Dep. 354:9-14.) Linville did not physically make contact with Shukh at any point. ( Id. 354:21-23.)

In response to the Linville incident, Shukh sent an email to his manager Sining Mao. (Ninth Gekas Decl., Ex. 7.) In the email Shukh stated that the day before he had informed Mao "about a rude behavior of Eric Linville against me and asked [you] to take required actions to prevent this kind of behavior in the future. I did not hear from you so far." ( Id. ) Shukh also stated "Sining. I have to admit, since you retook a position of manager on the design team a situation around me has got worse dramatically. I am continuously under a pressure from you and other team members close to you. I request to stop this practice and take required measures about reported accidents." ( Id. ) In a postscript to the email, Shukh noted "[s]ince English is not my native language and I don't have any experience in this kind of letters, I apologize in advance for an inappropriate use of some words." ( Id. ) Shukh later asked that Linville be made to apologize to him before he would continue working with him. (Shukh Dep. 353:7-22.) Shukh further testified that, pursuant to his three-strikes rule, he did not talk to Linville after the incident. ( Id. 272:4-9.)

At some point during his employment, Shukh asked coworkers Nurul Amin and Johannes van Ek about inaccurate data they had presented, in order to demonstrate that their own design was superior to Shukh's. ( Id. 352:16-353:5.) Shukh later asked Amin and van Ek to apologize to him. ( Id. )

Coworker Frank Stageberg testified about a meeting during which Shukh told Stageberg that Stageberg wasn't "really a designer." (Stageberg Dep. 54:25-55:16.) Stageberg found this comment to be disrespectful and unconstructive. ( Id. 64:5-21.) Stageberg testified that this statement fit his general impression that Shukh made statements that were unconstructive toward "Seagate collaborative, work-together goals." ( Id. 65:25-66:21.) Stageberg also recalled an incident when Shukh requested that Stageberg meet with him out in the back parking lot to have a discussion. ( Id. 86:9-25.) During the discussion, Shukh insinuated to Stageberg that Shukh had been promoted, and had a direct line of communication with Allen, the vice president in Shukh's area. ( Id. 70:15-71:24.) Shukh told Stageberg that his modeling work on a particular project was "unacceptable, deficient, not good." ( Id. 71:8-12.) Stageberg reported the incident to his boss, which was the only time he had ever talked to a Seagate manager about another employee. ( Id. 72:3-75:3.)

3. Shukh's Collaboration

The parties do not seriously dispute that Shukh did, in fact, collaborate with other Seagate engineers during his employment at Seagate. In his brief in opposition to the present motion, Shukh contends that he had no difficulty working collaboratively with other employees. As evidence of his collaboration, Shukh points to papers and presentations he co-authored as well as patents he co-invented with numerous other Seagate employees. (Ninth Gekas Decl., Exs. 3-5.) Additionally, coworker Vladyslav Vas'ko testified that Shukh had "a productive relation[ship]" with his coworkers. (Benjes Decl., Ex. 32 (Dep. of Vladyslav Vas'ko ("Vas'ko Dep.") 112:20-113:1).) Vas'ko further testified that the people Shukh primarily had trouble working with at Seagate were his supervisors. (Vas'ko Dep. 114:7-17.) Shukh also submitted evidence that he received awards from Seagate that listed Shukh as a member of a design team and thanked him for his work on the designs. (Ninth Gekas Decl., Ex. 10.)

C. Requests for Transfers and Promotions

In April 2002 Shukh asked his managers, Ned Tabat and Sining Mao, to promote him to a technologist position. (Shukh Dep. 489:17-22, 546:20-23.) Shukh did not receive the promotion and believed that since April 2002 "management put [a] taboo" on any promotion requested by Shukh. ( Id. 491:5-6.) Shukh also testified that the individuals in the position of technologist at that time were qualified for that position, and that he did not believe he was more qualified than them. ( Id. 548:-549:2.)

Sometime in January 2006, Shukh met with a Seagate vice president, Dave Brown, to inquire about the possibility of transferring from Seagate's advanced transducer department ("ATD") to the traducer development team ("TDT"). (Shukh Dep. 580:21-25, 744:7-14.) Pat Ryan was the manager of ATD and Allen was the manager of TDT. (Shukh Dep. 744:7-14.) Ryan had had some previous discussions with Allen about the possibility of Shukh transferring teams. (Allen Dep. 153:19-154:8.) Ryan expressed to Allen that he "felt like it wasn't going to work for Alex anymore, that Alex was very frustrated and unhappy and upset." ( Id. 154:2-4.) Ryan told Allen he "felt like it would be a good thing for [Shukh] to move over to [Allen's] team and have a fresh start." ( Id. 154:6-8.)

During the meeting with Shukh about the proposed transfer from ATD to TDT, Dave Brown allegedly jumped up, turned red and said "[w]hat are you doing here." (Shukh Dep. 581:1-3.) Shukh understood this comment to be questioning why Shukh had come to the United States. ( Id. 581:3-4.) Shukh testified that he could not recall whether Brown had actually said the word "country, " ( id. 583:17-25), but later testified that Brown had said "[w]hat are you doing here in this country, " ( id. 745:10-20), and still later testified that Brown had actually asked why Shukh had come to "the USA, " ( id. 752:7-9). Brown apparently accused Shukh of hating America and told him that he needed to "know [his] place." ( Id. 746:2-10, 752:10-11.) Shukh responded that he had come to America to work and for democracy, and asked "Why you treat me like [an] enemy? Cold War is over." ( Id. 754:2-6.) Shukh could not recall how Brown responded to the question. ( Id. 754:7-8.) Shukh also told Brown that he felt it was his duty to share his ideas to make America stronger, noting that at Seagate "initially people hate my ideas since they are [un]usual... then they accept them and put into products and so on." ( Id. 756:10-24.)

In February 2006 Allen interviewed Shukh for the ADT to TDT transfer and allegedly told him "[y]ou must stop talking about your designs. This is team work, this is team designs. This is your last chance to work at this company, otherwise you will not find a job anywhere." ( Id. 543:18-544:2; see also id. 490:4-13.) Shukh was transferred to the TDT team in March 2006. ( Id. 650:21-24, 744:7-14.)

In August 2006, Shukh requested that Ryan promote him to the position of principal engineer. ( Id. 578:9-17.) Ryan told him that he did not "match the corporate culture, " there was "a decision" about Shukh, and therefore he could not be made manager. ( Id. 578:9-17.) Also at some point Shukh began requesting that Ryan promote him to the position of manager of the writer team. ( Id. 370:14-17.) Shukh testified that he asked Ryan to promote him at least three times, and Ryan told him "[n]obody will listen to you." ( Id. 370:20-24, 388:9-14.)[4]

On September 1, 2006, Shukh wrote an email to Ryan, in response to an earlier meeting between the two. (Ninth Gekas Decl., Ex. 13 at 46217.) In the email Shukh expressed his belief that Ryan was expressing "personal bias" toward Shukh and that Shukh wished to discuss the issue with top management. ( Id. ) Ryan responded, asking Shukh to "please outline, in writing, all of the complaints/issues/wishe[s] that you have concerning your career at Seagate." ( Id., Ex. 13 at 46216.) On September 7, 2006, Shukh followed up with an email to Ryan, carbon-copying Allen, Brown, and Debra Reutiman - a human resources representative. ( Id., Ex. 13 at 46215.) In the email Shukh objected to his failure to be promoted since 2001, explaining:

Five years in a r[o]w I've asked you in writing to promote me. You never responded. Three times I asked you personally to promote me or to give me a chance to be a technical leader of writer team (I recognized long ago that [I] cannot be a manager at Seagate, maybe since I am Russian). You always responded to my requests with the same sentence: "Nobody will listen to you?" What did you mean: my strong accent or something else? Since then I don't like to talk in public. Whether it is good or bad for the company I don't know but it is much more convenient for me.

( Id. ) Shukh then detailed some of his technical achievements at Seagate. ( Id., Ex. 13 at 46215-16.) Shukh also referenced his experience with receiving appropriate credit for his work, explaining:

You created at ATD an atmosphere of plagiarism when lot[s] of engineers are used to us[ing]... my ideas and results of my work without referring [to] my name for their personal advantages. It seems to me, there is a taboo on my name at ATD. My numerous appeals to ATD management to stop this practice were not heard, even more, I was ...

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