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Terminated Employee Could Not Establish Claims Under The CFRA Or FEHA
In March 2012, Barracuda Networks, Inc. (Barracuda) hired George Choochagi as a Technical Support Manager. In May 2013, Choochagi reported to HR that his former supervisor had made inappropriate sexual comments to him and suggested that he was not “man enough” for his position. Choochagi’s former supervisor also told him he was not part of the “boys club.”
In January 2014, Choochagi sought medical treatment for severe migraine headaches and eye irritation. Choochagi notified the Director of Sales Engineering and one of his supervisors that he needed to take time off from work. Barracuda gave Choochagi the time off he initially requested. But when Choochagi approached his supervisors about taking additional time off, they seemed “irritated” and attempted to force Choochagi to quit. One month later, a supervisor told Choochagi he “must decide whether he wants to be fired or gracefully quit.” Choochagi refused to resign and maintained that he had performed well. Barracuda terminated his employment.
Choochagi initiated a lawsuit against Barracuda alleging, among other things: 1) disability and gender discrimination, retaliation, and failure to prevent discrimination and retaliation under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA); and 2) interference and retaliation under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).
Barracuda moved to dismiss the case on the grounds that Choochagi was a poorly performing employee. Barracuda argued that while Choochagi would follow explicit instructions, he could not proactively solve problems or come up with creative solutions. Barracuda also presented evidence that Choochagi’s supervisors and the team had immediately felt misgivings about his leadership. For example, Choochagi’s performance evaluation indicated he “demonstrated poor leadership skills” and had not improved in key areas of concern.
As to medical leave, Barracuda argued that Choochagi never specifically requested it. Barracuda said that Choochagi did inform his supervisors he was experiencing headaches and needed to follow up with his doctors. According to Barracuda, Choochagi only mentioned taking time off in one email and ultimately took the leave as requested.
Finally, Barracuda argued that it properly investigated Choochagi’s complaint about his supervisor. Even though the supervisor denied saying anything inappropriate, Barracuda reminded the supervisor of its policies and instructed him not to have any type of sexually explicit communication in the workplace.
The trial court entered judgment for Barracuda on all but two of Choochagi’s claims. The case proceeded to trial on the remaining claims, including Choochagi’s disability discrimination claim. The jury found Barracuda had no liability. After the trial court denied Choochagi’s request for a new trial, Choochagi appealed.
As relevant here, the California Court of Appeal considered the merits of Choochagi’s claims regarding CFRA interference, CFRA retaliation, FEHA retaliation, and FEHA failure to prevent discrimination and retaliation. With respect to Choochagi’s CFRA claims, the Court of Appeal determined that the trial court properly found Barracuda. To establish CFRA interference, an employee must prove: 1) he is entitled to CFRA leave rights; and 2) the employer interfered with those rights. Similarly, to establish a cause of action for CFRA retaliation, the employee must prove: 1) the employer was a covered employer; 2) he was eligible for CFRA leave; 3) he exercised his right to take qualifying leave, and 4) he suffered an adverse employment action because he exercised the right to take CFRA leave.
The court noted that Choochagi could not establish either of these claims because he failed to present evidence that he asked for and was denied leave. While Choochagi mentioned his headaches and sent a single email requesting time off, these facts would not have alerted Barracuda to the CFRA criteria that an employee was requesting leave to take care of his own serious health condition that made him unable to perform his job functions. Further, because the court found Choochagi did not request leave, there could be no adverse employment action taken because of a request for leave. Accordingly, the court found the trial court properly entered judgment for Barracuda on these claims.
The Court of Appeal also concluded the trial court properly decided Choochagi’s FEHA retaliation and failure to prevent claims. First, Choochagi could not establish FEHA retaliation because the individuals responsible for terminating his employment were not aware of the HR complaint Choochagi had made against his former supervisor. Thus, Choochagi could not establish the requisite causal link between his protected activity and termination. Second, Choochagi could not establish a claim for failure to prevent discrimination and retaliation since Barracuda submitted evidence it had anti-discrimination policies and procedures in place and that its HR department directed an immediate investigation into Choochagi’s complaint.
The Court of Appeal concluded Choochagi’s evidentiary objections were without merit.
Choochagi v. Barracuda Networks, Inc., 2020 WL 836992 (Cal. Ct. App. Dec. 30, 2020).
This case demonstrates the importance of 1) having an up-to-date anti-discrimination policy; and 2) conducting immediate investigations into complaints of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. The employer’s quick response to the employee’s complaint reduced its liability.