A jury awarded $1.8 million to a former human resources director of a Malibu-based rehabilitation center, who alleged she was fired for reporting workplace violations.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for less than two hours Friday, before finding in favor of Cynthia Begazo in her whistleblower and retaliation claims against Passages Malibu. Begazo’s wrongful termination lawsuit, filed in September 2015, alleged retaliation, as well as age and disability discrimination.
In addition to Passages Malibu, the defendants were named as Grasshopper House LLC; Passages Silverstrand in Port Hueneme; Passages Malibu co-founders Chris Prentiss and his son, Pax; and Passages’ chief operating officer Marina Mahoney, who was Begazo’s supervisor.
The suit stated that Begazo, then 53, told her supervisors that she had leukemia when she was hired in March 2015.
The same month she got the job, Begazo says she informed Pax Prentiss that some maintenance workers, housekeepers and kitchen servers were not receiving overtime pay or meal or rest breaks, as required by state and federal laws.
“Prentiss replied, `Don’t worry about it, you have bigger things to worry about,”‘ the suit alleges.
But Pax Prentiss testified that he fired Begazo because she did not perform up to par, he said.
He testified that Begazo did not follow his orders to meet with the managers at other Passages Malibu centers, did not put in the extra time she needed to get the department up and running and failed to assist in recruiting.
Pax Prentiss further testified that his initial impressions of Begazo were positive. He said he was so enthusiastic about her background and willingness to put in the time and effort he required that he agreed to pay her $150,000 a year, $10,000 more than he planned.
In April 2015, a patient at the Passages facility in Ventura was found dead in his room with a bag and a trash can over his head and scratch marks on his face, the suit states.
The plaintiff maintained that Mahoney spoke to detectives about the patient’s death, but after Begazo insisted that the incident also be reported to the proper civil authorities and the facility’s insurance carrier, Mahoney replied, “I don’t want you reporting any of it” and walked out of the room.
Begazo said she took a week off in early May 2015 after she contracted an infection related to her leukemia. She says she returned to work two months later, but was told the same day that she was being fired.
Passages Malibu advertises on television nationally, and runs a string of houses along the California coast that treat people for alcoholism and drug addiction. Its headquarters is in a residential area near Paradise Cove in Malibu.