Wrongful Termination

Big Payout for Wrongful Termination of HR Director

A huge settlement was recently awarded to Cynthia Begazo for her wrongful termination 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.

 

Sources:

http://patch.com/california/malibu/former-passages-malibu-employee-alleges-improriety-lawsuit-0

http://www.dailynews.com/general-news/20150921/passages-malibu-rehab-center-sued-by-ex-hr-director-with-laundry-list-of-allegations

https://dlbjbjzgnk95t.cloudfront.net/0898000/898594/operativecomplaint.pdf

 

Gender Bias is No Piece of Cake – Part I

Katie Mayes was described as an employee that “worked hard” and “followed the rules” during her 12 year employment at WinCo in Idaho Falls. That is, until she was terminated for allegedly stealing and being dishonest. If you think that sounds like an unlikely conclusion to a spotless performance, disciplinary and attendance record, you’re not alone. On February 3rd, 2017, the appellate court overturned previous judgments against Mayes in the gender discrimination case she filed following her termination.

The situation begins with Mayes being hired on as a Clerk for the company in 1999. In 2006, she was promoted to a PIC (Person in Charge) for the Nighttime Freight Crew. She also served as the store’s Safety Committee Chief. Because the crew she managed worked long hours full of grueling physical labor, Mayes often motivated her employees in the form of stale cakes from the bakery. She states that her original General Manager Mark Wright had given her approval to take cakes from the bakery area to use as motivation and boost morale, so long as she wrote them down in the “in-store use log”, which she always followed protocol for. When Wright left the store in 2007, a new General Manager took over by the name of Dana Steen.

Everything was seemingly okay until about January 2011 when Mayes and other managers were instructed to only take cakes from the “stales cart”. The items on the cart had been deemed unsellable due to freshness though they were still safe to eat, and would be donated to a local food bank or charitable organization. Mayes testified that she was told she no longer had to mark the stale items in the “in-store use log”, as they had already been scanned out of inventory and reported as a “lost product”. It was also around this time that Mayes’ title as Safety Committee Chief was taken from her and given to another employee. When Mayes asked Steen why she had been removed as the chair, she alleges that Steen replied by saying that “a male would be better in that position”. Mayes then reported to Assistant Manager Scott McCartney that she felt she was being discriminated against. She testified that McCartney’s response was for her to “stay away” from Steen, because she didn’t like that a “girl” was in charge of the freight crew. McCartney however later denied recalling such a conversation in his deposition.

From there on out, Mayes contends that she was treated differently from her male peers. Of course, there was the comment about a male being better fit to the safety committee position. Another example Mayes offered was that she was given criticism for sometimes not being able to stay late or having to leave early to care for her children. According to Mayes, another PIC named Andrew Olson was in a similar situation, sometimes having to leave early to care for his daughter, but never received any negative commentary.

The situation reached its peak on July 7th, 2011 when bakery manager Terri Bruun notified Steen that a cake had gone missing from their shelves and was eaten in the employee breakroom. Steen then initiated an investigation and reviewed 6 months of surveillance video in order to find the culprit. What she saw was a freight crew employee, Nick McInelly, taking the cake in question to the breakroom. She also reported seeing Mayes take a cake from the stale cart back in June of that year. Afterwards, Steen turned everything over to their loss prevention investigator, Scott Samuelson. He visited the store later that same day in order to review surveillance footage, in-store use logs, and sales records in to help determine what had happened. Another loss prevention specialist inferred that because management would not be present that night, McInelly might try to take another cake – and he did just that.

The following morning, Samuelson confronted McInelly about the cakes, at which point he said that Mayes had given him permission to take them. Mayes of course stated that she only instructed her crew to take cakes from the stales cart.

Ultimately, both Mayes and McInelly were fired over the matter. At the termination, Mayes was told she was being let go due to “theft” and “dishonesty”. She was also presented with a document banning her from WinCo property for 100 years. Despite McCartney carrying out the termination meeting and preparing the paperwork, he testified that he had no part in making the decision to terminate nor did he know who did.

Mayes attempted to appeal the termination with WinCo’s employee grievance committee but the decision was upheld. She then filed a complaint of discrimination based on gender with the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and the Idaho Human Rights Commission. She was issued a Right to Sue letter on April 11th, 2012.

Having exhausted her other options, Mayes filed a lawsuit on June 15th 2012, alleging discrimination on the basis of gender, violation of her COBRA rights, and wage issues as the company refused to pay her out for accrued vacation time.

http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2017/02/03/14-35396.pdf

http://www.employmentlawblog.info/2017/02/mayes-v-winco-holdings-no-14-35396-9th-cir-feb-3-2017.shtml

https://www.law360.com/employment/articles/888471/9th-circ-revives-bias-suit-over-store-s-cake-theft-firing

https://casetext.com/case/mayes-v-winco-holdings

Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment in Corporate America – Not Just TV Drama

The 1960s probably come to mind when you think of men making aggressive (perhaps appalling) advances towards female co-workers. But the reality is, that “Mad Men” stereotype is not too far from the corporate world today. Even the 2016 election cycle seemed to bring some of this issue to light – i.e. grab them by the what? The Roger Ailes controversy was one of the most widely publicized and closely followed news stories of the year. Over two dozen women came forward to speak out against Ailes’ inappropriate behavior, leading the big wig to resign from Fox News after a 20 year career. The world was shocked when women spoke of sexual harassment and assault from beloved comedian Bill Cosby.

But for many women, they don’t have to watch the news to see harassment culture in action. A report released in June 2016 by the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace revealed some alarming findings. Key findings included:

  • Workplace harassment remains a persistent problem
  • Workplace harassment often goes unreported (3 out of 4 victims never report the harassment)
  • There is a compelling business case for stopping and preventing harassment
  • It starts at the top
  • It’s on us (everyone)

The EEOC also notes that 45% of all complaints filed are based on sex. This is far more than any other type of harassment reported. They have also noted that 83% of all sexual harassment charges were filed by women.

Joann Lublin details the trials and tribulations of female executives in her book, Earning It: Hard Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World. She is also the management-news editor at the Wall Street Journal. Lublin interviewed several successful women for the book and shares their personal stories of sexual harassment and degradation. Many of the anecdotes take place in the 1980s and 1990s, but not all. The broad span of years in which the incidents take place is rather disheartening. Unfortunately, it’s evident from many sources that sexual harassment still prevails today as well.

Most recently, a lawsuit was filed against insurance company AIG by their former employee Marlee Valenti. The plaintiff began working for AIG in 2009, and was promoted within a year to Senior Underwriter. She won multiple awards for her performance. The issues began in 2012 when she was transferred to the Public Management Liability Commercial Lines Division. The division was well known within the company as the “Boy’s Club”, as only an estimated 10% of its employees were female. Valenti states that in the division, she and other female employees endured incredulous acts of sexual harassment, including male executives hiding under women’s desks in order to look up their skirts. Valenti also stated that she had been groped and licked by male co-workers, among other things. Though the behavior was grotesque, the plaintiff didn’t feel there was anyone she could make a complaint to. Her direct supervisor Michael Donnelly was, in her words, “a willing participant” in the problematic behavior. Eventually, Valenti states that Donnelly began showing “clear disdain” towards her. This escalated in September of 2013 when she received a formal written performance warning. Along with the write-up, Valenti’s biggest account was taken away from her and she claims that she was denied opportunities, as all of her supervisors began ignoring her. In December 2013, the problems came to a head when Valenti discovered her co-workers had been “speaking negatively” about her to others in the industry. She had enough. This prompted Valenti to submit a 150 page rebuttal to management, complete with “evidence” of the harassment she had endured. The following month, Valenti was fired. The company allegedly completed “a perfunctory investigation” but found no wrongdoing.

It is only a small percentage of stories such as these that gain notoriety. The only way that workplace harassment will be eradicated is if each of us take action. That can be in the form of making complaints on your own behalf, or standing up for co-workers. When necessary, it can also take the form of a lawsuit. If you feel that you have been sexually harassed in the workplace, call our office for a free consultation. Together, we can help end this epidemic, one case at a time.

 

Sources:

http://nypost.com/2017/01/24/ex-aig-worker-sues-over-never-ending-stream-of-harassment/

http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/aig-worker-sues-sexual-harassment-article-1.2953841

http://dealbreaker.com/2017/01/aig-sexual-harassment-lawsuit/

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/10/when-women-have-power-they-can-do-something-about-sexual-harassment/505316/

https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/task_force/harassment/report.cfm#_Toc453686298

 

sex discrimination

Research giant LexisNexis to pay gender discrimination settlement

LexisNexis is one of the world’s top research content providers to the legal, business, law enforcement, government, and corporate industries. Their sister company, LexisNexis Risk Solutions has agreed to pay more than $1.2 million to female employees in management due to the U.S. Labor Department’s allegations that they were subject to gender discrimination. This includes 185 affected female employees in the Alpharetta office as well as 26 female employees at the Boca Raton location. The company has also agreed to pay an additional $45,000 in salary adjustments to women at the Boca Raton operation.

The settlement comes three and a half years after the investigations were initiated. Two separate investigations had been conducted by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. They found that pay discrepancies had affected 211 women total. The allegations did not arise from a particular employee complaint, but rather from LexisNexis providing pay transparency information to the DOL. Upon review, the information appeared to violate Executive Order 11246 – which requires pay transparency and prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin or gender identity by government contractors (which LexisNexis happens to be). In 2015 and 2016, the company had “millions of dollars in federal contracts with the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation and Labor, and the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration”. “It is unlawful for federal contractors to discriminate in pay on the basis of sex,” said Acting OFCCP Director Thomas M. Dowd. “Through this settlement, the affected class members will be compensated for their losses. We are pleased that the contractor worked cooperatively with us and has agreed to review and revise pay policies and procedures as necessary.”

The Department of Labor website FAQ section states that “If a business or organization has a Federal contract, subcontract, or federally–assisted construction contract it may be subject to the requirements of Executive Order 11246. Generally speaking, any business or organization that (1) holds a single federal contract, subcontract, or federally assisted construction contract in excess of $10,000; (2) has federal contracts or subcontracts that have a combined total in excess of $10,000 in any 12–month period; or (3) holds government bills of lading, serves as a depository of federal funds, or is an issuing and paying agency for U.S. savings bonds and notes in any amount will be subject to the requirements of Executive Order 11246.

LexisNexis has agreed to pay the settlement but does not consider it an admission of guilt, as a release from the company clarifies. The full statement reads: “LexisNexis Risk Solutions is committed to ensuring all employees are treated fairly and afforded equal employment opportunities. The findings [by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs] were not based on any individual complaints; rather they were derived from statistical analysis conducted by the agency. The company disagrees with the OFCCP’s findings and does not believe it violated any federal laws. After three and a half years of cooperation during the agency’s review, we ultimately agreed to the settlement to avoid committing additional time and resources for continued legal proceedings.”

LexisNexis is not the only company accused of pay discrepancies based on gender discrimination in a large scale. Pharmaceutical company Merck is currently facing a class action lawsuit of more than 400 women alleging that they also faced gender discrimination. The case began in May 2013 with a single plaintiff, Kelli Smith. She filed the case alleging Merck had discriminated against women by denying them proper pay and promotions, by forcing pregnant women to take leave, and by fostering a hostile work environment which encouraged/allowed sexual harassment. Early in 2014 several other women joined the case, leading to a number which is now in the hundreds.

Gender discrimination cases appear to either be on the rise, or at the very least be starting to receive the media attention they deserve.

 

Sources:

https://www.dol.gov/newsroom/releases/ofccp/ofccp20170112

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/business/fl-lexisnexis-discrimination-settlement-20170112-story.html

http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/lexisnexis_risk_solutions_pays_1.2m_to_resolve_pay_bias_allegations

http://fortune.com/2016/07/21/women-suing-merck-sex-discrimination/

https://www.dol.gov/ofccp/regs/statutes/eo11246.htm

Pregnancy Discrimination – What You Need to Know

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed by Congress in 1978 as an amendment to The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite this being in place for nearly 40 years now, women still continue to face workplace discrimination due to pregnancy, or pregnancy-related issues. PDA applies to all employees, regardless of their length of time at a specific employer, so long as the company employees at least 15 people.

If you are pregnant (or may become pregnant), you may be wondering what pregnancy discrimination looks like and how you can protect yourself from experiencing it. Here are some of the most important facts to know about pregnancy discrimination at work.

Employers may not (because of pregnancy):

  • Refuse to hire or promote an employee
  • Terminate an employee
  • Ask interview questions that they would not ask non-pregnant applicants
  • Require employees to give notice of pregnancy (unless it is for a legitimate business purpose)
  • Discriminate against those who may become pregnant
  • Stop a pregnant employee from working if they want to and are physically able
  • Discriminate against an employee that had or considered having an abortion
  • Demand medical notes from a pregnant employee’s doctor concerning work status if they do not require them from non-pregnant employees on short term disability leave

Additionally, employers may not retaliate against an employee/applicant that makes a complaint because they feel they may have been discriminated against. Retaliation could be termination, demotion, or lowering of pay to name a few examples. However, some courts have held that you can be treated differently depending on where you work if you are unmarried and pregnant. It has been stated that religious organizations or ones working with youth may discriminate against employees who violate the organization’s principles condemning pre-marital sex. These employers would have to demonstrate that they hold males to the same standards – and are not only punishing female employees. However, these circumstances are few and far between, and this exemption does not apply to most employers.

Employers must:

  • Hold open a job for pregnancy related absence as long as they would for non-pregnancy related sick/disability leave
  • Provide health coverage on same basis as costs for non-pregnancy related medical conditions
  • Provide the same level of benefits for spouses of male employees as they do for female employees
  • Grant pregnant women on leave the ability to accrue seniority, vacation, pay increases, and temporary disability benefits in the same way as those on leave not due to pregnancy
  • Allow appropriate time/place for lactation purposes, including a private area to pump breast milk

It is important to also consider that a woman may have additional rights under programs such as FMLA or CFRA (in California). Under FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), a pregnant employee may be entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave so long as they have worked for the employer at least one year, during which time they worked at least 1,250 hours. Also, the company must employee at least 50 people in a 75 mile radius. This differs only slightly from CFRA (California Family Rights Act) which may allow an additional 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child for bonding and care purposes. CFRA does not cover pregnancy as a “serious health condition” and therefore would have to be taken after the exhaustion of either FMLA or Pregnancy Disability Leave, which run concurrently. The eligibility requirements for CFRA and FMLA are the same. Both allow employees to take time off to care for either themselves or a family member. Each includes same-sex spouses in the eligibility, but only CFRA includes eligibility for Registered-Domestic Partners.

If you feel you may have been discriminated against because of your pregnancy or a pregnancy related issue, please call our firm for a free consultation. No woman should have to feel shame for being pregnant, especially not in the workplace.

 

Sources:

http://www.aauw.org/what-we-do/legal-resources/know-your-rights-at-work/pregnancy-discrimination-act/

http://employment.findlaw.com/employment-discrimination/pregnancy-discrimination-in-the-workplace.html

https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/pregnancy.cfm

https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/californiadifferencecfrafmla.aspx

https://postdocs.ucsf.edu/fmla-and-cfra-comparison