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A job offer gone wrong [Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.]
[October 24, 2010]

A job offer gone wrong [Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.]

(Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 24--Induced by an attractive offer from disk-drive manufacturer Seagate Technology, an engineer uprooted his family and career at Texas Instruments in Dallas and headed to the Twin Cities for a job he says never existed. Now, he wants the company to pay him $2.7 million for a career he claims is in ruins.

When Chandramouli Vaidyanathan, 47, arrived for his new job as a principal yield engineer in 2008, he found there was no such position. Within 9-1/2 months of taking a job at Seagate's Bloomington operations, he was out the door. Because he was unable to find a similar job during the worst months of the recession -- and with his highly technical skills deteriorating as each month went on -- he says his career is over.

He wants Seagate to pay what he lost in giving up his former job.

A federal jury is set to hear his story in a trial scheduled to begin Nov. 8 in St. Paul.

Seagate, an $11.4 billion company based in Scotts Valley, Calif., employs 2,800 at two Twin Cities facilities. The company struggled during the recession as demand for its hard disk drives declined. It laid off hundreds of employees, including 300 in the Twin Cities in January 2009.

Vaidyanathan's case is not a wrongful termination suit. Instead, his attorney, Brent Snyder, says it centers on wrongful hiring.

It's as if Vaidyanathan was promised to be the ship's captain but when he arrived discovered there's not even a boat, said Snyder.

Vaidyanathan claims the company misled him about the character of the position when they lured him away from Texas Instruments. Seagate made false statements in a written job description, during interviews and in a written job offer, he alleges.

The basis for the case is a Minnesota law that dates back to 1913, which is seldom used as a cause of action. The law makes it illegal for an employer to induce a person to move from one place in the state to another, or from another state, territory or country for a job in Minnesota 'by means of knowingly false representations ...' Snyder says Vaidyanathan can recover damages and attorney's fees under the statute. An estimate, based on what he gave up -- subtracting gains from a startup business and his pay at Seagate -- will be presented at trial. He's seeking to recover $2.7 million based on his compensation and benefits had he stayed with Texas Instruments to age 60.

A key in convincing a jury of Seagate's liability will be proving that people within the company 'knowingly' made false representations, a subjective term of law.

"The distinction is about whether it's just mere carelessness, whether it's negligent or whether it's more than that," said David Allen Larson, an employment and labor professor at Hamline University. "When you're moving in the area of subjective intent, that's difficult." In court documents, the company denies the charges and contends Vaidyanathan's belief that the company was ready for yield engineering was based on his own assumptions. It also argues he cannot prove the allegedly false statements were made knowingly.

A Seagate spokesman declined to comment on the charges. An attorney for Seagate, Marko Mrkonich, says the claims have no merit. "We look forward to our day in court." Vaidyanathan's saga started in October 2007 when a Seagate recruiter contacted him. He now considers that call the start of the downward trajectory of his career.

Seagate had created what was called the Alternative Technologies Group in late 2006 to support a new semiconductor venture. The recruiter told him they were looking for an experienced yield engineer for the project, according to Vaidyanathan.

Generally speaking, a yield engineer strives to improve the process of manufacturing computer chips to minimize the number of nonworking chips in a batch.

At the time, Vaidyanathan was head of Texas Instruments' yield engineering department -- a manager on the technical ladder -- and had worked for TI since 1997.

Yet, Seagate's offer sounded intriguing. Though the specifics of the technology were proprietary until he took the job, he believed in the company and was eager to be part of a new and exciting venture he could grow with career-wise. "They offered me better pay and the growth curve was fairly inducing and impressive as well." He says he accepted the job at a salary of $126,000, with benefits, relocation assistance, stock options, a signing bonus and an expectation he would be promoted to a manager position in six months. After all, at Texas Instruments, he was in a managerial position. The offer letter was for a principal research-and-development yield engineer and laid out his compensation, according to the lawsuit.

In 2008, he moved his wife and two school-aged children to Eagan, where he still lives.

In interviews ahead of the job offer, he claims Seagate managers told him they were close to being able to manufacture a functional chip. Shortly after he started, he says, he discovered the project was in its infancy. He determined it was at least three years from needing a yield engineer. Instead of the job he thought he'd have, he was transferred to a different role outside his area of expertise.

Vaidyanathan said he was "shocked." But he was also stuck. "I moved my family over 1,000 miles. I bought a home and thought that Seagate was operating in good faith. I thought they would be offering me a yield engineering position and I would be doing yield." If he quit, he would have to pay back a $10,000 signing bonus, stock options and relocation costs. "I still had to be true to my family. The position they gave me was technology integration." In that job, he said he received a good performance review.

When the economy soured, Seagate searched for cost savings in the Alternative Technologies Group, where Vaidyanathan worked.

In September 2008, he recalls joining some 120 other workers in a conference room where a corporate vice president told them the semiconductor venture he was hired to work on was being discontinued and that layoffs were imminent.

He didn't think it would be him. "As humans, we are all optimistic that we will take the next breath." On Nov. 3, he walked into work at 8 in the morning. His boss took him into a conference room and handed him a "layoff package." He handed over his laptop and his company credit card. Within 10 minutes, he was out the door.

"I can't describe that shock," he said. "They hired me for a job, and then they fired me for the job not being there." He said he tried to go back to Texas Instruments, but by that time the company had frozen hiring. In April 2009, Vaidyanathan sued Seagate. In his order denying a Seagate motion to dismiss that cleared the case for trial, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank quotes an internal Seagate document that Vaidyanathan "was hired to lead a yield/product engineering/team" but "this charter never came to fruition." A damages estimate to be presented at trial will be based on the compensation he gave up when he moved from Texas, Snyder said. There, he was making a base annual salary of $109,000. He also had stock options, restricted stock, bonuses, a 401(k) retirement program and other benefits, which all will be part of the calculation based on the assumption he would have finished his career there.

Since his layoff, Vaidyanathan has sent out more than 200 resumes. He's had interviews but no offers.

"I was fired right at the cusp of the recession, and there was no way for me to get back into the employment stream," he said. "Now that I am away for this long, nobody will consider my potential because I've been out two years." Despite his experience and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in metallurgical engineering, he says he's washed up.

Today, he describes his skills as obsolete in the face of rapidly changing technology. "I like to think I can stand on my own two feet, but on the other hand, if a tornado comes straight at me, however strong I am, I am going to be in jeopardy." During the past two years, he started his own business, designing, buying parts and installing solar and wind energy systems for businesses and residences. Still, he said, what he makes is a fraction of what he was earning in Texas.

"Seagate essentially ruined my career in every respect possible." Julie Forster can be reached at 651-228-5189.

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Copyright (c) 2010, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

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