A former employee of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is suing the arts institution and three of its employees, accusing the museum of disability discrimination and unlawful termination for allegedly failing to accommodate his vaccine exemption request.
First reported by Law360, the suit was filed in New York’s Southern District Court last Thursday, October 26, by Philip Parente, who spent 17 years working in the museum’s library and archive collections. He was terminated from his position as MoMA’s library collections coordinator in November 2021 after refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine as mandated by an on-site work policy implemented during the pandemic, citing a cardiac condition. Some studies have documented infrequent cases of cardiac events following COVID-19 immunization, though scientists generally agree that the benefits of vaccination outweigh these minor cardiac risks.
MoMA has not yet responded to Hyperallergic‘s requests for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Parente began seeing New York doctor Patrick Fratellone in 2011 for a condition known as supraventricular tachycardia that causes a rapid heartbeat, and Fratellone advised him not to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The former employee sought a medical exemption request for accommodation on September 10, 2021, according to the filing. MoMA denied this request on September 13, noting in an email, “Without assessing whether your medical condition actually prohibits vaccination, we are unable to accommodate your request to work at MoMA while unvaccinated.”
Parente was subsequently placed on 30-day unpaid leave and threatened with termination, as “the essential functions of [his] job” required him to “be physically present” at the museum.
Parente claims that the exemption denial represents a violation of federal and state protections for workers with disabilities, including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and alleges that he was subjected to “discriminatory and retaliatory conduct” from the museum higher-ups and staff. When he met with human resource representatives to discuss his request for accommodation, Parente claims, they accused him of stealing from the museum based on a previous request he had made for baby wipes and photo negatives for a “personal photography project.”
The filing also alleges that the museum’s chief human resources officer described his contributions to MoMA — which included curating a photography installation for the education center and acquiring new materials for the library — as “insignificant.”
When Parente supplied MoMA with information from Fratellone on October 1 to contextualize his request, the museum again rejected his accommodation request on the basis that the medical advice “is contrary to the latest guidance from the CDC and does not appear to provide the basis for an accommodation.” The museum also invoked then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Keys to NYC COVID-19 vaccination mandate for public indoor establishments including cultural venues.
In a last effort, Parente reached out to his manager for a vaccine exemption, this time reasoning that since the museum closed to the public in March 2020, he had been able to perform “the vast majority of [his] typical daily workload from home.” However, he says he received no response, but that his email was reportedly passed on to the museum’s legal counsel and other staff. The suit details that when Parente met again with museum staff, he suggested a compromise that would allow him to work on-site in an unoccupied room on a different floor from collections staff. This alternative was also allegedly dismissed, and Parente was later terminated in November 2021.
“In this work environment at MoMA, regardless of what your doctor says, MoMA apparently believes they have the last word. My client was a long-term patient of his cardiologist and did not just come up with a feigned illness to avoid MoMA’s newly implemented and ultimately unsuccessful COVID-19 policy,” Christopher Berlingieri, Parente’s legal representative, told Hyperallergic.