Former MoMA Employee Files Lawsuit Against Museum, Alleging Discriminatory Practices

A long-time employee of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has filed a lawsuit alleging discriminatory practices and wrongful termination against the institution and Michelle Elligott, chief of archives, library, and research collection, and two human resources representatives Odessa Matsubara and Caroline Clements.

The complaint, filed last week, alleges that several of the museum’s employees failed to accommodate a coworker’s medical condition after the museum instated a pandemic-related policy that barred the employee from working onsite. The complaint was filed on behalf of Philip Parente, until recently the museum’s library collection coordinator and a 17-year employee in the museum’s photography department. In the filing, Parente said he suffered retaliation after requesting a medical accommodation for a heart condition. According to the lawsuit, Parente managed symptoms related to supraventricular tachycardia, a condition that causes heart palpitations, while working at the museum.

According to court documents reviewed bv ARTnews, Parente claims that senior MoMA staffers overseeing his medical accommodation request failed to respond to it adequately, ultimately leading to them withdrawing approval for him to work remotely that had previously been granted. In the filing, Parente also alleges that the museum’s employees leveled baseless accusations of theft against him that lead to his abrupt termination, describing the actions taken against him as “unlawful, discriminatory, and retaliatory conduct.”

According to the complaint, Parente submitted a medication exemption request in September 2021 to work remotely. The following month, Matsubura, who serves as head of the museum’s human resources department, denied the request, stating, “In order for you to perform the essential functions of your job, you must be physically present on the premises of the Museum.” Parente claims this discounted a previous approval in March 2020 from his manager that allowed him to work remotely for a portion of the week in response to the pandemic.

In the filing, Parente claims that Elligott did not respond to his attempts to discuss the exemption request. The complaint also alleges that Matsubura retaliated against Parente’s attempts to reach a resolution with human resources, describing his role at the museum as “insignificant” and accusing him of stealing photographic materials from his department. The filing further claims that MoMA employees violated state law that protects employees with disabilities.

In a statement to ARTnews, a New York-based attorney for the plaintiff, Christopher Berlingieri, said the lawsuit demonstrates an ethical issue at MoMA, presenting evidence that the museum mishandles employees “with legitimate disabilities.” It also claims that the museum is at odds with it’s stated workplace inclusivity policies and practices.

A representative did not immediately respond to ARTnews request for comment. (TK I have a deadline a deadline of 1pm.)