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This Bad Boss Didn’t Want Anything — Not Even a Death — to Tarnish the Image of a Celebrity Rehab Center

With gorgeous grounds overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Malibu, Calif., Passages rehab center is famed as a high-end haven for addicts — a luxe, spa-like facility where every patient gets a personal assistant. Celebrity graduates include Mel Gibson and David Hasselhoff; the price tag for a month of inpatient treatment tops $80,000.

Soon after Cynthia Begazo was hired as director of human resources for Passages, however, she began to notice problems at the center. Some amounted to illegal corner-cutting, she said in a lawsuit: Underpayment and misclassification of employees, a lack of required paperwork, and so on.

But she also saw blatant discrimination, according to court documents. Her boss, Marina Mahoney, was revamping Passages and, said Ms. Begazo, wanted to hire only healthy young people with blond hair and blue eyes: People who “look like they live in Malibu.”

According to her suit, Ms. Begazo balked — and she also protested when Ms. Mahoney fired employees for being “too old” and unable to “keep up.” That soured her relationship with Ms. Mahoney, who had just become the center’s chief operating officer. Tension between the women deepened when a patient died in a nearby Passages location: Ms. Mahoney wanted to alter documents related to the death, Ms. Begazo testified, but Ms. Begazo refused.

Shortly afterward, Ms. Begazo, herself a 53-year-old leukemia sufferer, took a three-day leave to recover from an infection. Upon her return she was fired by Ms. Mahoney and Passages CEO Pax Prentiss because she was “no longer a fit” at the rehab center.

While she was out sick, she told the court, her job was offered to a coworker.

Marina Mahoney is our new Bad Boss of the Month.

Ms. Begazo filed a complaint in California state court against defendants including Ms. Mahoney, Mr. Prentiss, and various Passages entities. This March, a Los Angeles jury found two of the Passages-related corporations liable for retaliation and wrongful termination, and awarded Ms. Begazo $1.8 million in damages.

Ms. Begazo’s tenure at Passages was short and rocky — about two months in mid-2015. At the time Ms. Mahoney was a newcomer to Passages, too, hired just a few months earlier and promoted to COO around the time that Ms. Begazo arrived.

From the start, things were uncomfortable. Although she knew of Ms. Begazo’s leukemia, and although Ms. Begazo warned her about anti-discrimination laws, Ms. Mahoney repeatedly griped about employees who were older or had medical conditions, according to court documents — often with the support of Mr. Prentiss.

Of an older woman with a bleeding disorder, for example, Ms. Mahoney and Mr. Prentiss complained that she was “sick all the time” and “will never … fit in the new Passages image,” according to court filings. Both executives wanted to fire another older woman who had taken medical leave: “She stinks because of her medical condition,” Mr. Prentiss said, according to Ms. Begazo’s testimony.

After Ms. Mahoney fired a different staffer, Ms. Begazo asked why. The COO’s response, according to the lawsuit: The woman “smelled foul” and couldn’t “keep up because she was too old.” That same month, Ms. Mahoney fired two more employees, both over 50.

In court documents, Passages claimed that Ms. Mahoney’s firings were routine “personnel management activity.”

By any account, however, the patient’s death was not routine. A non-celebrity, Gregory Link died while spending his first night in a shared room in Passages Ventura, just up the California coast in Port Hueneme. According to court documents, Ms. Begazo met with Ms. Mahoney at the scene and discussed the strange details: The dead patient had a bag and a trash can over his head and scratch marks on his face. There was blood on the other bed in the room — and Mr. Link’s roommate had posted photos on social media.

Ms. Begazo began asking questions about bed checks and proper reporting procedures but, according to her lawsuit, Ms. Mahoney shut her down. Later Ms. Begazo discovered that the Passages nurse on duty that night hadn’t been properly trained. In a deposition, she alleged that Ms. Mahoney told her to “fix the files” to hide this fact, which she declined to do.

(The local coroner deemed the death to be a suicide, but Mr. Link’s widow sued both Passages and the roommate for wrongful death; a trial is set for December. The Link complaint alleges, among other things, that Passages didn’t train its staff properly and concealed evidence from authorities.)

A few days later, Ms. Begazo asked for time off to fight an infection. During the absence, Ms. Mahoney pestered her with work requests — and then, the day after Ms. Begazo returned, teamed with Mr. Prentiss to fire her.

In court filings, Passages claimed that the firing wasn’t retaliatory at all — not for Ms. Begazo’s opposition to discriminatory firings, and not for her qualms about the handling of Mr. Link’s death. Instead, said Passages, Ms. Begazo was “terminated for poor performance.” Anyhow, it noted, the HR director was still in her probationary period and had failed to “integrate herself” into the organization.

At trial, however, the jury found Passages acted in retaliation. It awarded her economic damages of almost $280,000 — plus more than $1.5 million for non-economic harms, which Ms. Begazo said required treatment by two doctors and included shock, embarrassment, diminished confidence, anxiety, insomnia, isolation, and numbness.

Ms. Mahoney, meanwhile, moved on to another rehab center. Shortly after the March verdict she wrote to a Malibu newspaper, saying that Ms. Begazo “fooled the entire jury” and defending herself as a “good, honest and ethical person.”

According to the letter, Ms. Mahoney will start an “employer advocacy group” to protect companies from further injustice.

» Read Ms. Begazo’s second amended complaint
» Read the latest wrongful-death complaint of Mr. Link’s widow

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Begazo v. Passages Silver Strand LLC. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

During this case, Ms. Begazo was represented by Shegerian & Associates, Inc..

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