Liberty Mutual Insurance Company employed Joy Slagel from 1985 to June 30, 2016, most recently as Senior Case Manager in its Glendale claims department. For 30 years, she received consistently positive reviews from supervisors, colleagues and clients. A review of allegations and documentation in the litigation file between them revealed the following allegations.
In February 2015, Slagel went on disability leave due to stress and anxiety.
After returning in March 2015, Ariam Alemseghed, Regional Claims Manager, overseeing Liberty’s Glendale claims department, instructed Craig Ballard, Slagel’s immediate supervisor, to rate Slagel as “needs improvement” on her performance assessment. When Slagel asked Ballard why she received this rating, he told her he had not wanted to give it but Alemseghed instructed him to do so. When Slagel complained to Alemseghed about the rating, Alemseghed stated that because of her “tenure,” Slagel would be held to “higher expectations.”
On March 4, 2015, Slagel wrote to Glenn Shapiro, Liberty’s Vice President/Chief Claim Officer, complaining that Alemseghed mistreated her and several other long-term employees “in a manner that lacked dignity and respect,” and she feared retaliation because Alemseghed had a close relationship with Virginia Bennett, Liberty’s Human Resources Generalist. Slagel received no response.
In June 2015, Slagel told Human Resources (HR) Manager Michael Polk that 15 people had left in the last 12 months, and Alemseghed wanted long-term employees to leave so she could hire recent college graduates. Nothing was done.
In November 2015, Slagel received a Customer Service Award for her handling of claims for one of Liberty’s accounts. Alemseghed told her, “You just got lucky, it will never happen again.”
In January 2016, Leann Lo became Slagel’s Claims Manager. Shortly thereafter, Lo accused Slagel of speaking negatively about Liberty, and said, “I am warning you!” Lo and Alemseghed allegedly thereafter inundated Slagel with work and shunned and ostracized her.
A protracted dispute between Joy and her managers over the documentation of a social media check made during a claim review with an employer. Slagel complained to Bennett and Lo that she was being targeted because she was a 30-year employee whom Alemseghed wanted to replace.
On April 19, 2016, Slagel sought medical care for hypertension, coronary artery disease, hyperlipidemia, and panic attacks related to work-related stress and depression, and subsequently applied for short-term disability leave.
While Slagel was on leave, Bennett analyzed her failure to obtain a social media report for the employer in question, and noted that Slagel thought she was being set up because she was a 30-year employee. Bennett resolved Slagel’s complaint with no investigation because he believed she was a “negative influence in the Glendale office.”
After receiving authorization from attorney Gabriel Williams, Liberty’s Employee Relations Consultant, who could authorize terminating an employee, Lo terminated Slagel on June 30, 2016, the day she returned from leave. Slagel filed a complaint against Liberty, Alemseghed, and Lo, alleging 12 causes of action.
During discovery, Slagel attempted to depose Williams concerning his decision to approve Slagel’s termination. During the deposition Williams, an attorney, was unable to understand several basic questions, and according to the review by the Court of Appeal “Williams avoided the entire line of questioning pertaining to Slagel’s termination.” Other disputes between arose during plaintiffs discovery process concerning Polk’s depostion.
Defendants filed motions for summary judgment, arguing no triable existed as to whether they harbored a discriminatory motive for Slagel’s discharge. Slagel sought to continue the summary judgment hearing to complete discovery regarding Polk’s interviews, including the notes and an interview chart he had not produced, and also requested time to depose Latecia Flemming about her discussions with Polk. Slagel further requested time to depose Dan Karnovsky, who controlled some the investigatory reports and notes. The court denied these requests
The trial court found that Slagel submitted evidence of a discriminatory motive on the part of Alemseghed, but no triable issue existed as to whether Liberty’s reason for terminating Slagel was pretextual. The court found, Slagel “simply has not submitted evidence to show how Alemseghed’s age bias caused her termination when Alemseghed was not responsible for her termination, and when the proffered reason for Plaintiff’s termination, i.e., the social media report incident, actually did occur.” Accordingly, the court granted summary judgment in defendants’ favor and entered judgment. It awarded Liberty and Alemseghed jointly $26,917.61 in costs as prevailing parties, allocated to Slagel’s non-FEHA claims. The court awarded Lo $70,058.15 in attorney’s fees and $15,418.96 in costs as a result of Lo’s subsequent sanctions request.
The Court of Appeal reversed in the unpublished case of Slagel v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company -B310132 (June 2023).
The Court of Appeal noted that “Here, triable issues exist as to whether Williams’s decision to approve Slagel’s termination was tainted by Alemseghed’s bias. Alemseghed influenced Bennett’s and Williams’s deliberations by portraying Slagel’s performance in the worst possible light. This influence may well have been decisive. Williams’s deliberations were brief, perhaps perfunctory, taking only about half an hour.”
“Williams testified in deposition that he could not remember having considered the issue. Having no personal knowledge of the facts, Williams, who was not conversant with the possible age animus that may have motivated Alemseghed’s recommendations (as filtered through Bennett), was apt to defer to Bennett’s and Alemseghed’s judgment. If Williams acted as the conduit of Alemseghed’s bias, his innocence would not spare Liberty from liability for Alemseghed’s procuring Slagel’s discharge because of her age.”
On summary judgment, inferences must be drawn in favor of the opposing party. Here, the trial court should have but failed to draw several inferences in Slagel’s favor. Therefore, summary judgment was improper.
The Court of Appeal also concluded that the court arguably found only that Slagel’s claims against Lo lacked evidentiary support, not that they would have been legally insufficient even if supported by evidence. “Because the trial court found only that a subset of Slagel’s allegations lacked legal and evidentiary support, and because some of her allegations against Lo actually did have evidentiary support, sanctions were improper.”
The judgment was reversed as to Slagel’s first through fifth and tenth and twelfth cause of action. The costs and sanctions awards were vacated. The judgment was otherwise affirmed.
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