(From left: Kiki Paris before her accident, and afterwards wearing a halo neckbrace and holding her separation papers from MSLO)
In May 2008, Kiki Paris, a senior director of national accounts at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia’s Body + Soul magazine fractured her spine after being hit by a car. Paris underwent surgery to screw her fractured vertebrae together and was placed in a halo neckbrace for 12 weeks to immobilize her spine. According to Paris, her supervisors at Body + Soul pressured her to go off disability and begin working from home nine weeks after her accident. Less than a month after she returned to work, Body + Soul executives came to her house and laid her off. Now, Paris has filed a disability discrimination claim against her former employers with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and her case may be headed to court.
Paris was hired by Body + Soul in the fall of 2005 to develop new national advertising accounts for the magazine. As Paris tells it, she was a “top producer” who brought in “175 pages of new business and almost $3 million worth of new business that the magazine never carried before.” According to Paris, “from the day [she] got home from the hospital after surgery,” her supervisor told her she “was expected to check [her] Blackberry each day and be available to take phone calls if somebody needed help.” As a result, Paris says that while on disability, “I did work some almost every day.” Soon afterwards, Paris claims that her supervisor, Donna Merritt and Body + Soul publisher Jan Bruce began asking her to resume full-time work from home.
Following multiple calls for comment to various Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia personnel, a company spokesperson emailed FishbowlNY this afternoon in response: “I understand you’ve been calling our offices for a comment regarding a former employee. We don’t discuss employment or employee-related matters.”
Following her injury, Paris says she informed Merritt on no fewer than three separate occasions that she couldn’t return to work while wearing the halo brace. Paris says she “basically was pressured to get off disability and work from home… which I had to talk my doctor into doing, but I did.” Dr. Sean McCance, co-director of spine surgery at Mount Sinai hospital in New York, performed Paris’ spinal screw operation. “I would have recommended keeping [Paris] out of work for the full three months,” he told FishbowlNY. “I think after about two months if she wanted to work from home she could have, although it wouldn’t have been easy because of the halo. It would be very hard to even use a keyboard like that. I don’t think that she really was functional while wearing the halo.”
Though she was still wearing the halo brace, Paris commenced full-time work from home on July 14, just seven weeks after breaking her back. On August 4, Jan Bruce and MSLO human resources executive Tina Mohyla visited Paris at her home, and fired her. Paris’ claim is based on the premise that there was no reason for her to be laid off other than her injury, and that by encouraging her to conclude her disability leave early to work full-time from home, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia prevented her from making a claim for long-term disability or potentially taking a leave of absence to recover from her injuries. Paris told FishbowlNY that she “decided to sue because I was just outraged that the company… pressured me into getting off of disability so that they could fire me.”
Paris says when she asked why she was being laid off Bruce told her “I can only say it’s corporate restructuring.” As previously reported, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia laid off 100 employees in 2008. In spite of this, Paris believes her injury was the sole reason she lost her job, pointing out that the fact her supervisors claimed they needed her to work from home so soon after her accident demonstrates the pivotal role she played within her team immediately prior to her dismissal. “There is absolutely not one question about my performance or the revenues that I brought in,” Paris points out.
We found evidence to support Paris’ claim that job performance was not an issue prior to her accident. Two months before she was injured, Paris received her annual performance evaluation from Body + Soul, written by Merritt. In it, Paris’ supervisor raved:
“Kiki is a phenomenal sales person and a star on our team. Her efforts over the past year have completely changed the advertising make up of our publication and the way we are perceived by Madison Ave.”
The evaluation ranked Paris on 11 categories with a score of 1-5. She received an average rating of 4.3, indicating that she was an employee who “exceeds expectations.” We spoke to one of Paris’ former Body + Soul coworkers, who echoed the sentiments expressed in Paris’ performance evaluation. “It was a team of great sale people, but [Paris] made the magazine. She brought in these unbelievably fantastic national beauty accounts that took the magazine to another level.” Paris’ former colleague regaled her disbelief that a junior employee who had “been given half of [Paris'] accounts” was kept at the magazine after Paris’ departure:
“When I found out that [Paris] was laid off I was shocked, but when I found out that she was laid off and the newer person was not, I was blown away, and then I started laughing because it was so obvious that it was because of the accident. I couldn’t believe that they would come to [Paris] in her condition, after everything she’d done for the magazine, and do that.”
Now, Paris has hired an attorney and filed a claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Law requires her to allow the Commission seven months to investigate her claim before she can file a civil court case. If the investigation finds probable cause for disability discrimination, the case may be resolved with their judgment. Otherwise, Paris plans to take her former employers to court. Of course, we’ll keep you posted on any further developments in this case.