Flesner v. Tesla Motors

Discrimination Harassment

Plaintiff Thomas Flessner (“Plaintiff”) has sued his former employer, Defendant Tesla Motors, Inc. (“Defendant”). Defendant employed Plaintiff as an engineer at its Fremont, California manufacturing facility. Plaintiff’s age (69) was a substantial motivating factor in Defendant’s decision to terminate his employment on or about February 9, 2016.

Plaintiff, age 69, worked for Defendant for four (4) years, first as a contract employee and then as a regular employee.

Plaintiff’s employment began in February 2012 as a contract employee in Tennessee working on casting machines. In October that year, after observing his work, Elon Musk, Tesla Chairman, Product Architect and CEO, praised Plaintiff for his casting work. As a result, in December 2012, Plaintiff was asked to join Tesla as a manager of casting technologies. He accepted.

Throughout his work for Tesla, Plaintiff was an exemplary employee. He brought more than 45 years of engineering experience to the company. He also brought his patented self-supporting billet technology (Patent number: 5865238), which he was in the process of implementing when he was suddenly terminated. He received positive performance reviews. Prior to a change in leadership at the end of his tenure, there were no complaints about the quality or speed of his work.

As a regular employee in California, Plaintiff’s duties included bringing online the low-pressure casting facility in Fremont and overseeing the move of casting machines from Tennessee to California. For some months he worked alongside a manager in the production casting group named Mark Young. Mr. Young was very negative and disrespectful towards Plaintiff. Mr. Young would not accept any feedback Plaintiff tried to provide. Moreover, when Plaintiff offered feedback, Mr. Young responded with comments such as “I don’t need that from an old guy like you.”

In the spring of 2013, Tesla’s materials engineering group in the Vehicles department asked Plaintiff to join their team as a Staff Engineer. He happily transferred to that department.  Ben Zabik, a materials engineering manager, became his supervisor.  In November 2013, Plaintiff’s performance review was very positive.  He received a letter telling him that his yearly salary would increase and that he would receive stock options with the company because of the exceptional job that he had done.

In the materials group, Plaintiff interacted directly with vehicle engineers. He worked on product design, production costing, materials sourcing, and improving production processes, among other things. He enjoyed working for Mr. Zabik and was happy in his position. While Mr. Zabik was his supervisor, Plaintiff received no complaints about the quality or speed of his work.

The other engineers in the materials group included Alec Pezeshkian, Senior Engineer (age, approximately, 28), Grant Pattinson, Metals Specialist / Engineer (age, approximately, 38), Garrett Rayner, Senior Engineer Metals (age, approximately, 24), Kenan Ulsu, Senior Mechanical Design Engineer (age, approximately, 26), Kevin Newland, Engineer (age, approximately, 22), Yayong Liu, Staff Materials Engineer (age, approximately, 35), Huilen Quiroga, Engineer (age, approximately, 22), and Finley Marbury, Engineering Intern (age, approximately, 21). Their average age is 27. Plaintiff was 69 at that time.

In July 2015, Plaintiff was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He was hospitalized and took only two weeks off of work. When he returned Mr. Zabik warned Plaintiff to tread carefully because “these guys are gunning for you.”

When Plaintiff returned to work, Paul Edwards, age 36, a senior manager of materials engineering who had been hired from Boeing, was his new supervisor.

Plaintiff informed Mr. Edwards that he was recovering from congestive heart failure. Mr. Edwards responded dismissively to the affect that he did not care why Plaintiff had been out. He then asked Plaintiff a lot of pointed questions about the self-supporting billet project for casting that Plaintiff was working on and why he was not finished.  Plaintiff tried to explain that he needed to run tests before recommending where this project could be applied at Tesla.  This meeting would set the tone for the interactions Plaintiff had with Mr. Edwards.

After returning to work, the quality of Plaintiff’s work did not change. However, when Mr. Edwards became Plaintiff’s manager, Plaintiff began to be excluded from meetings.  Plaintiff had hardly any communication with or feedback from Mr. Edwards.  The one-on-one meetings he had scheduled with Mr. Edwards were often cancelled.  The meetings that were not cancelled were filled with Mr. Edwards criticizing the speed of Plaintiff’s project.

Edwards also treated Plaintiff differently than his younger co-workers. For example, Mr. Edwards included the young engineers in meetings and took them out to lunch, but ignored Plaintiff.  Additionally, in August 2015, the materials group took a camping trip as a team-building exercise.  Due to his physical disability, Plaintiff was not able to participate in the hiking and camping part of the trip.  As a result, he was made to feel like an outsider from the younger members of the materials group.  Furthermore, the younger engineers were not criticized for the speed of their work by Mr. Edwards even though they did not accomplish their projects any faster than Plaintiff.

In the first week of September 2015, Plaintiff received his first performance review from Mr. Edwards. The performance review gives ratings of 1 to 4 in different areas.  For the innovation and teamwork sections, Plaintiff scored a 3 and a 4 and was told that he was a key resource for casting.  However, Plaintiff received a 2 in the individual productivity and resourcefulness section.  Overall, his scores continued to show that he was meeting the company’s expectations.  However, he was told that there were concerns about the rate of progress of his project and the overall value of the new technology on which he was working.  Specifically, Mr. Edwards told Plaintiff that he was not working fast enough.  This criticism was unreasonable because it held Plaintiff to a higher standard than the other, younger, engineers.  It was clear to Plaintiff that Mr. Edwards was implying that he worked slower because of his age.  His work had not changed and his review showed that he continued to provide value to the company.

In October 2015, Mr. Edwards placed Plaintiff on a performance improvement plan (“Action Plan”). Even though Mr. Edwards was supposed to be more closely monitoring Plaintiff’s work toward the Action Plan goals, between October 2015 and February 2016 they met only a handful of times. During those meetings, Mr. Edwards continued to unreasonably criticize the speed of Plaintiff’s work on the self-supporting billet project and development of a nanoparticulate application specifically.

During the time the Action Plan was in effect, Plaintiff worked diligently toward achieving its goals, including the following:

  • Self-supporting billet applications. Plaintiff had run samples previously showing that the method he had developed worked, i.e. micrographs were done and a full report had been presented. The material supplier Tesla was going to use for this process was late in delivering the material and runs were scheduled for later in February 2016.  Plaintiff provided these explanations, but meetings with Mr. Edwards were almost always postponed.  Plaintiff made written submissions. Mr. Edwards rejected them, not because of any substantive problems, but because of their formatting.
  • Component testing. Plaintiff engaged in casting component testing during this time, with purchase orders placed and engineering underway, meeting the Action Plan goals.
  • Participation in other Materials engineering projects. Although it was included in the Action Plan, Plaintiff was never asked to contribute to other aspects of the materials projects, such as sheet metal, adhesives, fasteners and coatings, although he was qualified and willing to do so. He was only assigned to the cast aluminum product, while the younger engineers were given diverse assignments.
  • Casting engineering and production support. Plaintiff spent one to two days per week working with Tesla’s casting team in Lathrop, California. He helped with meetings regarding Design of Experiment implementation, gating and runner analysis, thermal balance issues, and working with offsite suppliers. He spent the week before Christmas 2015 in Indiana assisting Tesla’s casting supplier to ramp production of Tesla’s Model X cast structural components.
  • Casting lab progress. By late October 2015, the casting lab was completed and functional.

Despite his compliance with the Action Plan, on February 9, 2016, Plaintiff was terminated from Tesla. Mr. Edwards told Plaintiff that it was because he did not meet their expectations or address the concerns that they had on self-supporting billet project. That assertion was false.

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