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Yousefzadeh v. Hill-Rom, Co. Inc.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 30, 2019

Mahmoud Yousefzadeh Plaintiff,
Hill-Rom Co., Inc., Defendant.

          Michael A. Fondungallah, Fondungallah & Kigham, LLC, for Plaintiff.

          Alice D. Kirkland and Kerry L. Middleton, Littler Mendelson, P.C., for Defendant.


          SUSAN RICHARD NELSON, United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Defendant Hill-Rom Co., Inc.'s (“Hill-Rom”) Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. No. 73] seeking dismissal of Plaintiff Mahmoud Yousefzadeh's claims. The Court agrees with Hill-Rom's arguments in all relevant aspects, and for the reasons discussed below, grants its summary judgment motion in full.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The events underlying this case occurred over a seven-month period from late-2015 through early-2016. In setting forth the factual background below, the Court is mindful that in considering this summary judgment motion, the Court must “view[] the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, ” namely, Yousefzadeh. Grinnell Mut. Reinsurance Co. v. Schwieger, 685 F.3d 697, 700 (8th Cir. 2012). The Court must not, and will not, “weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter itself[.]” Nunn v. Noodles & Co., 674 F.3d 910, 914 (8th Cir. 2012).

         A. The Parties

         Plaintiff Mahmoud Yousefzadeh is an Iranian American citizen of the United States and a practicing Muslim. (2d Am. Compl. [Doc. No. 34] at 1, 3.) At all times relevant to this case, Yousefzadeh was employed by Hill-Rom at its St. Paul, Minnesota facility as a Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs (“QA/RA”) Engineer. (Id.)

         Defendant Hill-Rom is a medical technology company that designs, manufactures, sells, rents, and services a variety of medical equipment. (See Hill-Rom Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. (“Hill-Rom Mem.”) [Doc. No. 75] at 2.) The company operates a warehouse and manufacturing facility in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Id.)

         B. Hill-Rom Moves Manufacturing to St. Paul, Minnesota

         In 2015, Hill-Rom closed its manufacturing operations in Charleston, South Carolina, and shifted those operations to St. Paul, Minnesota. (See Shatava Decl. [Doc. No. 77] at 1.) As part of that transition, Hill-Rom established a Quality Assurance/Regulatory Affairs (“QA/RA”) Department in St. Paul and promoted one of its employees, Amie Klager, to be the first QA/RA Manager at the facility. (Id.)

         Upon assuming her new role, Klager sought applicants for two new positions at the St. Paul facility: (1) a QA/RA Engineer position, and (2) a QA/RA Technician position. (Klager Decl. [Doc. No. 79] at 1.) Klager, along with Donna Shatava (of Hill-Rom's Human Resources Department), interviewed five or six candidates for the QA/RA Engineer position. (Shatava Decl. [Doc. No. 77] at 2.) One of those candidates was the Plaintiff, Yousefzadeh, (id.), who had seen an advertisement for a related position and had been communicating with a recruiter about possibly working for Hill-Rom. (Kirkland Decl. Ex. A (“Pl. Depo.) [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 3, Depo. 53-56.)[1] Yousefzadeh was given a job description for the QA/RA Engineer role before interviewing. (Id. at Dkt. 3, Depo. 53-54.)

         C. Yousefzadeh is Hired

         At his interview, which involved both Shatava and Klager, Shatava informed Yousefzadeh that the Quality Department in St. Paul was new and that, accordingly, the engineer position was also new. (Shatava Decl. [Doc. No. 77] at 2.) Klager also explained to Yousefzadeh that because the St. Paul department was new, specific job duties for the role were not yet fully established and that the QA/RA Engineer position would be “responsible for a wide range of tasks.” (Klager Decl. [Doc. No. 79] at 1-2.) Yousefzadeh asked numerous questions during his interview, testified that he was impressed that he and Klager shared similar work characteristics, and appreciated that they were both “thinker[s]” and “process-oriented” individuals. (Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 4, Depo. 57-60.) He also asked questions about training and was informed that there was standard operating procedure training and general orientation trainings in place. (Id. at Dkt. 5, Depo. 61-62.) Yousefzadeh does not recall any mention of his race, religion, or national origin during the interview. (Id. at Dkt. 5, Depo. 62.) After the interview was over, Yousefzadeh left feeling “good” about the position. (Id. at Dkt. 5, Depo. 63.) He testified that his understanding of the position at the time was that he would be in the “quality department” and that if he was hired, the Quality department would consist of only him, a “quality technician, ” and his manager, Klager. (Id. at Dkt. 6-7, Depo. 76, 79.)

         After considering the candidates, Klager decided to hire Yousefzadeh because he appeared to be the best candidate for the job. (Klager Decl. [Doc. No. 79] at 2; see also Shatava Decl. [Doc. No. 77] at 2-3 (noting Shatava supported Klager's decision because Plaintiff was a senior engineer with a strong background ideal for the wide variety of responsibilities the engineer in St. Paul would face); Fondungallah Decl. Ex. 1 Pl. Resume [Doc. No. 82-2] at 2-5 (listing Yousefzadeh's education and credentials).) Yousefzadeh was offered the position, (see Kirkland Decl. Ex. E Offer Letter [Doc. No. 76-1] at 39.), which he accepted, (see Id. at 41; Klager Decl. [Doc. No. 79] at 2.) He later testified that at the time he accepted the position, he understood that his job duties were listed in the QA/RA Engineer description, but that those listed duties-while essential and “primary”-were not exclusive. (Fondungallah Decl. Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 82-1] at Dkt. 8-9, Depo. 84-85.) Indeed, as evidence of that fact, Shatava testified that one of the duties Yousefzadeh would be responsible for was documentation control changes, which stemmed from Hill-Rom's move from South Carolina to St. Paul, and required the Quality System Team (to which Yousefzadeh belonged) to convert documents to reflect the switch to St. Paul. (Kirkland Decl. Ex. C (“Shatava Depo.”) [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 32, Depo. 19-20.) While this responsibility was not listed in the job description, Shatava explained that it fell under the language requiring the engineer to “[l]ead or support any required quality improvement activities in St. Paul, ” and the project was temporary. (Id. at Dkt. 33, Depo. 22-25.)

         Klager also hired Bob Whittemore as a QA/RA Technician, which Yousefzadeh admits is a position ranked below a QA/RA Engineer. (Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 18, Depo. 225.) Klager testified that the QA/RA Technician position is in fact a “lower level position” that-unlike the QA/RA Engineer position-does not require that the employee have an engineering degree. (Klager Decl. [Doc. No. 79] at 2.)

         Yousefzadeh began his employment at Hill-Rom on October 28, 2015. (Shatava Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 32, Depo. 20.) That same day, he provided a signed release indicating that he had received and read Hill-Rom's policies on, among other things, technology, prohibiting harassment, equal employment opportunity, the Hill-Rom Code of Conduct Escalation, and company integrity. (Kirkland Decl. [Doc. No. 76-2] at 12; see also Middleton Decl. Ex. A Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 86-1] at Dkt. 5, Depo. 91 (Yousefzadeh indicating he signed the policy statement release); Shatava Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 34, Depo. 82- 83. (identifying Yousefzadeh policy statement release and testifying he signed it on October 28, 2015).) Yousefzadeh later testified that he signed the policy statement without receiving the policies-although there is no independent evidence supporting that assertion-because he assumed the policies were in the employee handbook (a document he also received). (Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 86-1] at Dkt. 5, 8, Depo. 91, 104.) However, he also signed a separate handbook release apart from the Hill-Rom policy release. (Id. at Dkt. 8, Depo. 104.)

         D. Hill-Rom's Policies

         Hill-Rom's Employee Handbook contains detailed statements prohibiting any form of harassment, misuse of company technology, or retaliation, and describes Hill-Rom's commitment to equal employment opportunities. (See Kirkland Decl. Ex. F Hill-Rom Employee Handbook [Doc. No. 76-1] at 47.) Hill-Rom maintained a general “business casual” dress code for office and warehouse employees, subject to some exceptions for safety-related reasons. (Id. at 58; see also Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 9, Depo. 124 (Yousefzadeh acknowledging awareness of dress code).) Discipline for violation of company policies “may or may not be progressive, depending upon the circumstances, ” and could include “possible immediate dismissal.” (Id.) If the unacceptable employee behavior did not result in immediate dismissal, Hill-Rom used an escalating discipline approach, beginning with a verbal warning, following by written warnings, unpaid suspension or final warnings, and then dismissal. (Id. at 64.) Hill-Rom maintained the right to “accelerate and skip the progressive [discipline] steps.” (Id.)

         Hill-Rom also maintains separate policy statements-which Yousefzadeh's policy statement release form references-prohibiting harassment and discrimination in any form, describing appropriate technology use, and reaffirming Hill-Rom's commitment to equal employment opportunities. (See Kirkland Decl. Exs. G (EEO and Non-Discrimination Policy), H (Anti-Harassment Policy), & I (Technology Policy) [Doc. No. 76-2] at 2, 5-6, 9.) Despite these statements, Yousefzadeh contends that he was unaware that “harassment, sexual, racial or otherwise, ” could result in discipline or termination. (Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 8, Depo. 117-118.)

         E. Problems Begin

         Shortly after Yousefzadeh was hired, Klager “developed significant concerns about his knowledge, performance, and ability to perform all the responsibilities of the QA/RA Engineer role” to her expectations. (Klager Decl. [Doc. No. 79] at 4.) As noted above, one of Yousefzadeh's first assignments was to assist with document control, which involved revising policies and procedures that were initially designed for Hill-Rom's South Carolina facility. (Id.) More than 800 policies required revision. (Id.) According to Klager, Yousefzadeh performed his portion of the project “very slowly and repeatedly returned documents with numerous errors” and frequently “questioned [Klager's] authority to review and reject the documents he revised, despite the fact that [Klager] was his direct supervisor[.]” (Id. at 4-5.) Yousefzadeh argued-and continues to argue now-that “document control tasks and supplier quality engineering responsibilities were not explicitly referenced in his job description” and therefore he was not responsible for completing them. (Id. at 5; see also Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 16, 187-188 (Yousefzadeh arguing that document control was not something he had ever done before and was not what he was hired to do).) Klager repeatedly explained to Yousefzadeh that he was required to participate in document control, but he refused to accept her explanations. (Klager Decl. [Doc. No. 79] at 5.) Yousefzadeh later admitted, however, that there was “absolutely” nothing wrong with Klager asking him to take on new tasks-like document control-so long as the requests were not discriminatory. (Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 16, Depo. 188.)

         Throughout his employment with Hill-Rom, Shatava was involved in Yousefzadeh's perceived performance deficiencies, frequently encouraging Klager to coach Yousefzadeh on his job responsibilities. (Shatava Decl. [Doc. No. 77] at 3.) Yousefzadeh also frequently asked for additional training. (Id.) Shatava (and other Hill-Rom employees) provided training where available, but noted that many of the areas Yousefzadeh sought training for were in the realm of tasks that he was expected to already know how to do when he was hired. (Id.) Moreover, Yousefzadeh appears to have received numerous trainings on a wide variety of Hill-Rom-specific responsibilities over the course of his employment with the company. (See Shatava Decl. Ex. A Pl. Agile Training Records [Doc. No. 77-1] at 2-10 (showing completed trainings on anti-discrimination, harassment, employee handbook knowledge, document control and changes, and document control analysis and approval).) No matter how many trainings were provided, Shatava noted that Yousefzadeh never felt satisfied by the amount of training he received. (Shatava Decl. [Doc. No. 77] at 3.)

         On November 13, 2015, Klager took Yousefzadeh out for lunch. (Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 8, Depo. 120.) Klager and Yousefzadeh describe this lunch very differently; for Yousefzadeh, it is the starting point for his claims of discrimination and harassment. (Id. at Dkt. 8, Depo. 119-120 (noting that for the first couple weeks of his employment, Yousefzadeh did not feel Klager was treating him any differently from other employees).) From Yousefzadeh's perspective, he considered the lunch meeting to be a “thank you” for assisting with an audit but found it strange that only he and Klager went to lunch when there were other team members helping with the project. (Id. at Dkt. 8, Depo. 120.) During lunch, Yousefzadeh says Klager asked him “discriminatory” questions, including questions about his religion, his background, his wife, and his citizenship status. (Id. at Dkt. 8, Depo. 118-119.) Klager also discussed her own religion at that time. (Id. at Dkt. 8, Depo. 119.) Yousefzadeh does not recall any other comments beyond Klager asking him to identify his religion, national origin, and race, and admits that no one else at Hill-Rom ever asked him about, or discussed with him, his religion, national origin, or race at any point during his employment. (Id. at Dkt. 9, Depo. 121-123; see also Id. at Dkt. 15, Depo. 177-180.)

         From Klager's perspective, she invited Yousefzadeh to lunch to get to know him better. (Klager Decl. [Doc. No. 79] at 6.) She recalls that during the lunch meeting, Yousefzadeh shared some information about his background, and believes he may have mentioned he or his wife was born in Turkey or Iran, but she has no memory of Yousefzadeh informing her that he was a practicing Muslim. (Id.)

         After this lunch meeting, Yousefzadeh contends Klager began treating him differently from other employees. From his perspective, Klager began slowly changing his job responsibilities to include things that he did not know how to do, just so he would fail. (Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 16, Depo. 186-187.) This included the document control project. (Id. at Dkt. 16, Depo. 187-188.) He also contends that Klager would criticize him, raise her voice at him, use raw or harsh language, and would not accept explanations for why he did things the way he did. (Id. at Dkt. 14, Depo. 174.) Specifically, he testified that Klager accused him of being “slow to learn things” and that his performance was not meeting Hill-Rom's standards and requirements. (Id. at Dkt. 15, Depo. 177.) Yousefzadeh admits that Klager was within her rights to criticize his performance as his manager (but believes her actions were discriminatory while doing so), and acknowledges that he does not “learn things as fast as other people” which was what Klager was “referring to [about] [Yousefzadeh's] performance.” (Id. at Dkt. 14, Depo. 175-Dkt. 15, Depo. 177; see also Fondungallah Decl. Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 82-1] at Dkt. 38-39, Depo. 362-363.)

         F. Human Resources Involvement

         Hill-Rom's Human Resources department became involved with Yousefzadeh's claims in December of 2015; the departments' involvement is documented through numerous emails and notes from meetings or phone calls between the relevant parties.

         Beginning in December of 2015, Klager began consulting with HR, including Shatava and Shane Reif (who, at the time, was an HR Manager for QA/RA groups nationwide), regarding her concerns with Yousefzadeh's performance. (Klager Decl. [Doc. No. 79] at 5- 6.) HR attempted to assist Klager with coaching Yousefzadeh, but Yousefzadeh apparently resisted her coaching efforts. (Id.) In Klager's words, she did not expect an experienced engineer like Yousefzadeh to require step-by-step training on most things, but attempted to assist him regardless. (Id.)

         On January 7, 2016, Yousefzadeh emailed Klager taking issue with her assignment of document change processing responsibilities and asked that he not be assigned such projects. (See Kirkland Decl. Ex. K [Doc. No. 76-2] at 14-15.) Around that time, as part of the ongoing coaching efforts, Shatava began sitting in on weekly one-on-one meetings between Yousefzadeh and Klager. (Shatava Decl. [Doc. No. 77] at 3-4.) Yousefzadeh contends that Shatava took notes during those meetings, but did not speak up or interject when Klager purportedly raised her voice and used harsh language against him in the meetings. (Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 14, Depo. 173-174.)[2]

         On January 25, 2016, Yousefzadeh emailed a letter to Hill-Rom Human Resources claiming that Klager was impermissibly changing his job duties, ignoring his repeated requests to not have to do document control changes, and, in response to his requests, had begun to “retaliate, mistreat, and harass[]” him. (Kirkland Decl. Ex. L & M [Doc. No. 76-2] at 17-18, 21.) He asked that Human Resources “look[] into [his] concerns as soon as possible, because it is not a healthy work environment.” (Kirkland Decl. Ex. L [Doc. No. 76-2] at 18.) Both Shatava and Reif received Yousefzadeh's email, and Reif informed Yousefzadeh that they had met with Klager to discuss his concerns, and that Klager would be meeting with him to discuss a plan to move forward. (Kirkland Decl. Ex. M [Doc. No. 76-2] at 20.) Shortly after this, Klager sent Yousefzadeh an email asking him to relabel some shelves in the warehouse. (See Fondungallah Decl. Ex. 4 [Doc. No. 82-2] at 12.) Yousefzadeh asserts that asking him to label shelves in the warehouse was humiliating because it was a job reserved for “production staff, ” not a QA/RA engineer. (Fondungallah Decl. Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 82-1] at Dkt. 22, Depo. 182.)

         On January 28, 2016, Shatava met with Yousefzadeh and sent an email to Reif with her notes about his complaints. (Shatava Decl. Ex. B [Doc. No. 77-1] at 12-13.) Yousefzadeh told Shatava that (1) he felt that Klager's assignment of document control change duties was a sudden and inappropriate change for which he had no training; (2) Klager was looking for errors in his work; (3) Klager was harassing him, did not trust him, and was giving him too much work; and (4) he never received job-specific training. (Id.) Shatava concluded in her notes that Yousefzadeh likely had not received significant training up front, but that after three months at Hill-Rom he should be further along than he was, which evidenced performance issues. (Id. at 13.) She suggested placing him on a Performance Improvement Plan. (Id.) In her declaration, Shatava asserts that after meeting with Yousefzadeh, she felt that additional training was warranted, but also thought that Yousefzadeh was exhibiting “clear performance gaps after three months on the job that were not sufficiently explained by any lack of training at Hill-Rom.” (Shatava Decl. [Doc. No. 77] at 4.) She also believed Yousefzadeh's complaints of retaliation, mistreatment, and harassment were more accurately a communication issue and a misunderstanding on Yousefzadeh's part of his job duties. (Id.)

         Yousefzadeh also met with Klager to discuss his concerns and job responsibilities. On February 3, 2016, in a follow-up email memorializing their conversation, Klager indicated that they had “discussed [plaintiff's] job responsibilities and [Klager's] expectations” and that Yousefzadeh's work needed to be “almost perfect most of the time” because the “QA organization sets the tone for the rest of group here, and that bar should be extremely high.” (Kirkland Decl. Ex. N [Doc. No. 76-2] at 20.) Klager also made it clear that document control was, for the time being, “a high priority” and that despite Yousefzadeh's dislike of “having multiple tasks remaining open” it was his job to “manage multiple activities to completion.” (Id.) Klager included a detailed table setting forth Yousefzadeh's job responsibilities, the approximate percentage of his time each responsibility should take, and an estimation of the number of hours per week he should be spending on each job duty. (Id. at 20-21.) In response, Yousefzadeh said that he would be sending a follow-up email “clarifying what [he] said” and “what [he] didn't [say]” in their meeting. (Id. at 25.) No such email is in the record.

         On February 5, 2016, following a global broadcast of a company “Town Hall” presentation, Yousefzadeh sent an email to Hill-Rom's then-CEO John Greisch, telling him that he was impressed to see how much Greisch promoted diversity, but asking him what to do “when a manager does not like ‘Diversity'[.]” (Kirkland Decl. Ex. O [Doc. No. 76-2] at 28.) He further stated that he was “a Muslim but working for a manager who her husband is a Jewish (sic). My manager is trying very hard to see I fail. I have reported her to Human Resources and her manager.” (Id.) Yousefzadeh later testified why he sent that email:

[He] had a problem because [his] manager retaliate[d] and had asked [him], and are Muslim (sic), and she's connected to the Jewish, and Muslim and the Jewish did not get along and especially if the person from Iran (sic). Iran, it is enemy of Israel, and Israel, it is enemy of Iran.

(Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 17, Depo. 217-218.) Despite this assertion, Yousefzadeh admits that he and Klager never discussed Israeli/Iranian relations, or any conflict between Jewish and Muslim individuals, during his employment.[3] (Id. at Dkt. 18, Depo. 218.)

         On February 9, 2016, Yousefzadeh sent another letter by email to both Reif and Brian Cousins (Vice President of QA/RA at Hill-Rom). (See Kirkland Decl. Ex. Q [Doc. No. 76-2] at 33-34.) In the letter, Yousefzadeh reasserted that Klager was “harass[ing] and retaliate[ing] against [him]” by “singl[ing] [him] out to harass during one-on-one weekly meeting[s] and [through] her [e]mails.” (Id. at 33.) He contended that Klager constantly accused him of “not completing [his] daily and weekly work, ” and that he was usually brought in at the end of projects whereas he would prefer to be brought in at the beginning. (Id.) He stated that Klager gave him “new assignments daily, ” only cares about herself, and that she was a “young and inexperienced new manager who need[ed] improvement” in a wide range of skills. (Id.) Ultimately, he stated that Klager's behavior was causing him “stress and [] other issues . . . mentioned in [his] earlier letters and [e]mails” and asked for help sorting out his concerns. (Id.) Yousefzadeh testified that he sent this email because he felt that Klager was taking advantage of his one-on-one meetings, and using them to retaliate, harass, and discriminate against him. (Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 19, Depo. 230-231.)

         On February 10, 2016, one day after Yousefzadeh sent his second letter, Klager assigned him additional Supplier Quality duties and reached out to a fellow QA/RA manager to seek out training for Yousefzadeh. (See Kirkland Decl. Ex. R. [Doc. No. 76-2] at 37.) Klager was informed there were no specific training programs for the supplier quality role, but was given some information as to where Yousefzadeh could look for guidance. (Id.) That same day, Klager also had a “performance conversation” with Yousefzadeh and presented him with a Performance Improvement Plan (“PIP”) summarizing his performance deficiencies and setting out a path that would allow both him and Klager to move forward. (Shatava Decl. Ex. D [Doc. No. 77-1] at 19; see also Kirkland Decl. Ex. S PIP Mem. [Doc. No. 76-2] at 39-42 (noting Yousefzadeh's performance level was “unacceptable, ” highlighting his low speed, poor follow-up and communication skills, and low accuracy in work product, and noting he was responsible for document control duties and supplier quality duties).) The PIP had been developed in consultation with Reif and Shatava. (See Reif Decl. [Doc. No. 78] at 1-2.) Klager noted in an email to Shatava and Reif that Yousefzadeh declined to sign the PIP, “does not agree with any of it, ” and feels that “the job he is being asked to do is different from the job description he was hired with.” (Shatava Decl. Ex. D [Doc. No. 77-1] at 19.) She also noted that Yousefzadeh felt that he was working very hard at his job, and that Klager should not add supplier quality roles to his workload. (Id.) Paraphrasing the plaintiff's words, Klager reported that Yousefzadeh had told her that she could “fire him tomorrow, but he would likely take legal action.” (Id.) Later that evening, Yousefzadeh emailed Cousins and Reif asserting that Klager had become “very unhappy due to [his] letters” and was also “very uneasy when she f[ound] out you (Mr. Cousin[s]) [were] coming to St. Paul within [the] next two weeks.” (See Reif Decl. Ex. B [Doc. No. 78-1] at 5.) He claimed that she had written him up, and that doing so was “clear retaliation and harassment.” (Id.) He also asserted that he was “not sure why she is doing this to me, because I am Muslim and her husband [is] a Jew.” (Id.) He also sent a separate email early the next morning on February 11 to Cousins and Reif, attaching Klager's PIP memorandum and asserting that in his many years of experience, he had never “seen an employee get a warning letter regarding his/her performance during training time” and that Klager's PIP memorandum was “clear indication” that Klager was “not ready for the position.” (Kirkland Decl. Ex. U [Doc. No. 76-2] at 47.)

         Two days later, Yousefzadeh and Klager again discussed his job responsibilities. On February 12, Yousefzadeh emailed Klager seeking clarification about his duties and asked her if he needed to “put more hats on and work as [a] CAPA Quality Engineer, Metrics Quality Engineer, Operations Quality Engineer, Design Quality Engineer, Supplier Quality Engineer, Document Control, and my own Quality Assurance/RA Engineer.” (Kirkland Decl. Ex. T [Doc. No. 76-2] at 44.) He asked for a “short answer” in response. (Id.) Klager emailed him back with the following clarification:

In [our] discussion, I believe you asked about other entities having specific titles for these different roles, and why we do not. Entities with larger QA departments split activities up into different titles, but for smaller entities, the responsibilities can be assigned to one or two QA/RA Engineers. This is based on the amount of work to be done proportional to the amount of staff required to do it.
I am not suggesting that you work 7 jobs (CAPA QE, Metrics QE, Ops QE, DA QE, SQE, Doc Control and QARA Engineer). There is not enough work here in any of those areas to justify one person for each activity. I'm saying that the one QA/RA Engineer job here, as at other small Hill-Rom entities, is responsible for many of the areas you mentioned. Note, your own responsibilities do NOT include Design Assurance, which is conducted [elsewhere], as we don't own any product DHFs today. Also, you are not responsible for running the document control process; you are responsible for submitting documents into the process. Once we have executed the entity update process, this activity will no longer take as much of your time.


         On February 15, Yousefzadeh again emailed Reif and Cousins, asserting that “Hill-Rom hired [him] based on the job title and the responsibilities [set forth in the job description]” but now Klager was assigning him “different job responsibilities” that were “very different from the” duties that Klager and Yousefzadeh had purportedly agreed on. (Fondungallah Decl. Ex. 12 [Doc. No. 82-3] at 5-6.) In response, Cousins informed Yousefzadeh that he would be coming to St. Paul within a week. (Id. at 5.)

         On February 23, 2016, both Reif and Cousins met with Yousefzadeh in person to talk to him about his concerns and ask follow-up questions. (Reif Decl. [Doc. No. 78] at 2.) They also met with Bob Whittemore, whom Yousefzadeh claimed had received better training. (Id.) Reif took handwritten notes during the meeting. (See Reif Decl. Ex. C [Doc. No. 78-1] at 11-13.) Reif noted that Yousefzadeh believed that Klager did “not want him here, ” and that he thought that she treated “Bob [Whittemore] differently.” (Id. at 11.) His primary concern, however, was that he felt he was not “doing the job that he was brought here to do.” (Id.) When asked about training, Yousefzadeh admitted that Klager had showed him how to do things, but that demonstrations were “not adequate” for him. (Id. at 12.) He also admitted that he did not know-or at the very least, could not articulate-why he though Whittemore had received better training them him. (Id.) Reif's notes on his interview with Whittemore reflect that Whittemore thought things were going well, and while training was not “always available” he was able to “figure it out” when necessary. (Id. at 12-13.) When asked to describe his relationship with Klager, Whittemore said it was “really great” and that he “really likes working with her.” (Id. at 13.)

         After meeting with Reif and Cousins, Yousefzadeh sent several follow-up emails. In the first email, he asserted that Cousins “had no interest[] [in] going through the evidence (Documents) that show the patterns of discrimination, harassment, retaliation, etc. by [Klager] against me - instead you were interested in the outcome of our meeting.” (Reif Decl. Ex. E [Doc. No. 78-1] at 17.) He asked that Klager be replaced with “a non-discriminatory manager very soon, because it is very difficult to work in a hostile work environment” where the “evidence clearly identified my manager [as] a Racist[.]” (Id.) The next day, Yousefzadeh also forwarded an email from Klager asking him to address some aspects of a work assignment, and “close it” by the end of the week, asserting that it was evidence that Klager “wants [him] to fail.” (Reif Decl. Ex. F [Doc. No. 78-1] at 19.)

         On or about February 24, 2016, Yousefzadeh spoke with John Smith, then-Vice President of Human Resources for Hill-Rom, about Klager. (See Kirkland Decl. Ex. Y Pl. EEOC Complaint [Doc. No. 76-3] at 10.) In that conversation, Yousefzadeh purportedly told Smith about his concerns and stated that if Hill-Rom does not want him anymore, they should just let him go. (See Pl. Depo. [Doc. No. 76-1] at Dkt. 12, Depo. 149-150.) Smith told him Hill-Rom did not want Yousefzadeh to leave the company, but that he was free to leave if he so desired. (Id.) They briefly discussed severance packages, at which time Smith informed Yousefzadeh that if he left, he would not get a severance package. (Id.) From Yousefzadeh's perspective, Smith seemed to agree with him that Klager was engaging in problematic behavior. (Id. at Dkt. 11, Depo. 145-146.)

         The next day, February 25, 2016, Yousefzadeh sent a follow-up email to Smith thanking him for discussing his concerns and asserting that he can “clearly conclude that [his] manager['s] intention was to hire[] and punish [him]; being a Muslim, born in the Middle East, having an Iranian wife, and etc.” (See Fondungallah Decl. Ex. 13 [Doc. No. 82-3] at 7.) He reiterated that he would like to see Klager removed from her position. (Id.) Smith took the matter under advisement.

         In the meantime, tensions between Yousefzadeh and Klager continued to increase. On March 16, 2016, Klager asked Yousefzadeh to present at Hill-Rom's Global Supplier Quality Council meeting, which was scheduled for late March 2016. (See Fondungallah Decl. Ex. 14 [Doc. No. 82-3] at 8-9.) Klager provided Yousefzadeh with a slide deck and instructions to assist him, in addition to responding to his email asking various follow-up questions. (Id. at 9.) Yousefzadeh testified that he believed Klager's request that he lead the presentation to the Council was retaliatory because the supplier quality field was “brand-new to ...

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