(From left: Kiki Paris before her accident, and afterwards wearing a halo neckbrace and holding her separation papers from MSLO)
A former Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia employee has filed suit against the company in Manhattan district court, claiming the media company violated federal employment laws after forcing her to return to work too soon after a debilitating injury and then firing her soon after.
FishbowlNY reported exclusively about this case back in April when Kiki Paris, a former senior director of national accounts at MSLO’s Body + Soul magazine, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Paris fractured her spine in May 2008 after being hit by a car, forcing her to undergo surgery to screw her fractured vertebrae together. She was placed in a halo neckbrace for 12 weeks to immobilize her spine, and was instructed to stay home from work on disability leave for three months.
But, according to Paris, her supervisors at Body + Soul pressured her to go off disability and begin working from home nine weeks after her accident. Then, less than a month after she returned to work, she was fired. Although the company was undergoing restructuring at the time, Paris alleges that her injury was the main reason she was laid off. Paris, who worked for the company for two and half years, claimed that prior to her injury she had brought in millions of dollars in revenue for the company and had a great reputation among its major advertisers.
After filing a complaint with the EEOC earlier this year, Paris received a right to sue from the federal agency in July. On Tuesday, she filed her complaint against MSLO, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, among others.
The details in Paris’s complaint are pretty vivid: “After the surgery, Ms. Paris was unable to move her neck or head because of the seven-pound metal halo that was screwed to her skull and connected to a hard plastic body vest that she wore. She could not bend or lift anything, shower or sleep for more than three to four hours a day. Ms. Paris’s vision was also blurred after the accident.”
Despite her injuries, Paris claims her Body + Soul bosses pushed her to work from home. “Ms. Paris’s supervisors Donna Merritt and Janesse Bruce immediately began pressuring to work from home,” the complaint states. “On a daily basis, she received emails and phone calls to which she was required to respond…Ms. Merritt and Ms. Bruce also both asked Ms. Paris to call advertisers on numerous occasions and repeatedly suggested that she call her contacts to tell them about her accident and try to secure “sympathy” pages.”
Fearing for her job, Paris returned to work on July 14, 2008, although she was still confined to a halo and working from home. On August 4, Bruce and an MSLO human resources officer visited Paris at home and fired her, the complaint says. Her job was then given to another employee who was younger and less experienced.
“This is a case of corporate failure and callous disregard for an employee’s basic right to accommodation and leave,” said Gary Phelan, one of Paris’s attorneys at Outten & Golden LLP. “A car broke Kiki Paris’s neck, but Martha Stewart broke her spirit.”
Paris is seeking lost wages and benefits and compensatory damages, although no dollar amount was mentioned in the complaint. We have reached out to MSLO for comment on the case
and are waiting for a response. Update: An MSLO spokeswoman told us the company does not comment on active litigation.