A huge wrongful termination settlement was recently awarded to Cynthia Begazo for her case. Begazo initiated the case in September of 2015 after she was fired from Passages Malibu Rehab Center. She alleged that the termination was wrongful on the basis of discrimination and retaliation.
Begazo started working for Passages Malibu in March 2015 as their Human Resources Director. She was 53 at the time, and disclosed to her employers that she had been suffering from Leukemia. That same month, she first approached Passages co-founder Pax Prentiss about some concerns she had. She had noticed that some of the staff members such as maintenance, housekeepers, and kitchen workers were not receiving their lunches and breaks. Being in charge of HR, it would have been partially her responsibility to make sure the company was in compliance with state laws regarding lunches, breaks, and the like. Prentiss' reply however, was disheartening. He allegedly told her, “Don't worry about it. You have bigger things to worry about.” Around this time, Begazo also mentioned the facility's compliance issues with training, licensure and contracts, but states that nothing was done to correct the issues.
The following month, the (soon to be) COO Marina Mahoney and Prentiss asked Begazo to terminate three employees – all of whom had medical issues. Begazo protested, telling Mahoney and Prentiss that terminating employees because of medical conditions was illegal. Mahoney replied that, “she would fire anyone that was too slow, could not keep up, [and] who did not fit in with the ‘new Passages'.” This was not the only occasion where Mahoney seemingly targeted employees with medical issues. Begazo alleges that throughout her employment, there were several times where Mahoney told her she did not like it when employees took time off for medical reasons. After it was all said and done, the three employees Mahoney singled out were in fact let go. C.J. Robinson was the first of these three to be terminated in April of 2015. When Begazo asked why she had been fired, Mahoney told her it was because Robinson was “too slow”, “smelled foul”, and “can't keep up because she [was] too old”. Later that month, Debra Saunderson and Mark Bonelli were terminated, both of whom were over the age of 50. Begazo asked for the reasoning behind these terminations as well. Mahoney's reasoning for letting Bonelli go was because, “he's old” and she didn't think “he's ever going to keep up.” Again, Begazo warned Mahoney about the legality of terminating employees due to the age. Mahoney replied that she could “do whatever she wanted” because of the at-will presumption.
Not too long after, Kathryn Rivas (Passages Program Director) informed Begazo that she would need to take leave in order to recover from a medical condition. Begazo took this information to Mahoney who replied, “You know what, she'll never work here. She'll never work for me.” Despite Begazo's concern over firing an employee with a medical condition, both Mahoney and Prentiss continued to press her, asking if there was “any way to fire” the employee. While the employee was on leave, Pretniss and Mahoney allegedly harassed Rivas. Begazo warned Prentiss that he should not contact an employee at all while they are on leave, “let alone harass them”. However, Prentiss ignored her recommendations.
In a shocking turn of events, a patient was found dead in his room on April 23rd, 2015. Upon inspection of the scene, Mahoney found that there was a plastic bag and a trash can covering the patient's head, scratch marks on his face, and blood on the bed of the patient's roommate. These details led Mahoney to note that although they initially thought the death was a suicide, it could have been a homicide. Begazo asked if all of this information had been given to the appropriate entities (detectives, Department of Health, the Joint Commission, and liability carrier). Mahoney replied, “I don't want to say anything until there's a medical report….I don't want you reporting any of it.” After this, she promptly walked out of the room. Begazo reviewed employee files and discovered that the nurse on duty the night of the death had not received proper training. Mahoney admitted that the facility did not have “any formal or written procedures for intake, detoxing, and monitoring” the patients. Mahoney then ordered Begazo to alter the employee files and falsify information about the events surrounding the patient's death, which Begazo refused to do. After this, Begazo states that Mahoney stopped talking to her, leaving her excluded from projects and employee meetings.
Around April 30th 2015, Begazo contracted an infection due to her Leukemia. Despite having a fever of 102 degrees, she went to work anyway due to fear of losing her job. Begazo's doctor then put her off of work for one week in order to give her time to recuperate. Begazo informed the HR department and Mahoney on May 1st 2015 that she needed to take at least a three day absence from work due to the medical problems. She states that upon receiving this news, Mahoney was “visibly upset”.
Similar to what happened to the other employee that went on medical leave, Begazo states that while she was out she was contacted several times by Mahoney regarding work matters. She also required her to reply to all work related emails and telephone calls from staff members.
On May 3rd, Pretntiss and Mahoney met with the HR staff, and informed them that they would be terminating Begazo due to her medical leave of absence. At this time, Prentiss also offered Begazo's job to HR generalist in Begazo's department.
On May 6th 2015, Begazo returned to work only to be told that she was being terminated. Interestingly enough, Prentiss commented “You're no longer a fit, but your skills and experience are excellent.”
Due to the overwhelming evidence of disability discrimination and retaliation (amongst other claims) on the part of Passages Malibu, the court found in favor of Begazo on March 3rd, 2017. The award amount totaled $1.8 million dollars.