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The woman who founded the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Multiple Sclerosis Foundation Inc. in 1986 to help MS victims claims that she was illegally fired by the organization as a spokeswoman and counselor because she has MS. Marilyn Manning-Albrecht of Prescott, Ariz., is suing the group in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale, claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The foundation denies that her dismissal had anything to do with her having MS. Manning-Albrecht says she got a phone call out of the blue in July 2000 from Jules Kuperberg, the foundation’s national director. “He said, ‘It’s with a heavy heart that I tell you, but your last paycheck will be arriving by FedEx tomorrow. Have a good life. Goodbye.’ No reason was given,” says Manning-Albrecht, whose duties included writing the “From Our Founder” column in the foundation’s magazine, MSFocus. There was no warning before the ax fell on her at the foundation, she says. She claims she tried to call back seeking an explanation, but “they didn’t connect me to people I’d known for years.” The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, a $4 million a year nonprofit, tax-exempt education and service organization, is accused in the suit filed this month of terminating Manning-Albrecht’s employment “solely by reason of her disability.” “They said she was unable to perform the duties of her position,” says one of her attorneys, Bruce E. Rosenberg, a Prescott solo attorney. “From a legal standpoint, if someone is otherwise qualified to do the job, and you believe they can’t because of their disability, before you fire them you are supposed to offer them reasonable accommodations. They made no such offer.” The complaint, filed by Rosenberg and West Palm Beach, Fla., solo practitioner Charles H. Damsel, also alleges that the foundation invaded Manning-Albrecht’s privacy by misappropriating her name and image after she’d been bounced. “The improper appropriation and use of Manning’s name and likeness by MSF was for pecuniary gain, including, but not limited to, advertising and solicitation purposes,” the complaint says. Manning-Albrecht is asking U.S. District Judge William P. Dimitrouleas of the Southern District of Florida to reinstate her and award backpay, interest, attorney fees and damages “sufficient to deter this and other defendants from similar conduct in the future.” Kuperberg was dismayed to learn of the lawsuit. “Oh, that’s very sad,” he says. “The idea of an MS organization of any kind terminating anyone because they have MS is absurd, to say the least.” Manning-Albrecht’s dismissal, he said, “had nothing to do with her disability.” Kuperberg, citing the litigation, declined to elaborate. Manning-Albrecht, whose married name at the time she established the foundation was Marilyn Garden, was a professional singer before she contracted MS in the late 1970s. The first symptom of the disease, which for unknown reasons causes the body’s immune system to attack normal nerve tissue, appeared suddenly when she awoke from a nap on a Fort Lauderdale beach. “I was numb from the chest down, but I could walk,” she says. “I made my way to the ocean. I didn’t feel if the ocean water was hot or cold, I just felt pressure. From then on, people who smoked could put a cigarette out on my leg, but I just felt pressure.” A spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis: chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. “I was 29 or 30, and the doctors at the Mayo Clinic told me I had one year to live,” says Manning-Albrecht, 48, who was born and raised in Chicago. “They told me I would be confined to a wheelchair. I proved them wrong.” In 1986, she set up the foundation to meet needs she knew from personal experience. “I made phone calls everywhere looking for help and I didn’t get any help,” Manning-Albrecht says. “I just got pitched [to make donations]. One of the major things in the foundation’s articles and bylaws that I set up was that nobody diagnosed with MS or any family member ever gets asked for a dime.” For nearly a decade, she says, she served as either board chair or president of the foundation and often traveled to promote the organization. She also worked in the trenches, counseling MS sufferers, earning $400 a week. “It never increased since 1986,” Manning-Albrecht says. She continued working for the foundation after she left South Florida in 1990. She says she moved away at the urging of her neurologist to escape the debilitating heat and humidity. Despite her lawsuit, Manning-Albrecht has nothing bad to say about the work of the 70-employee Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. She says the foundation helps people with its telephone and walk-in support facilities, home care and emergency assistance, and educational outreach, which includes information on alternative treatments. According to its 2001 Form 990 federal tax return and its audited financial statement on its Internet site, the foundation raised more than $15 million in gifts, grants and contributions from 1997-2001. Nonetheless, in January, a Los Angeles-based charity watchdog group, the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, issued a report that said the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation did not meet some of its standards for charitable solicitations. The bureau cited the foundation for, in its opinion, failing to properly explain its various expenses and booking too much of its direct mail solicitation costs as program service expenses, rather than as fund-raising and management expenses. It also criticized the foundation for not specifying, in accordance with donor expectations, how much will be spent on various programs and activities mentioned in its appeals for donations. If those fund-raising expenses were recognized differently, the foundation’s fund-raising costs would be higher than the 9 percent of related contributions it reported, the bureau said. In contrast, the bureau found that the older, larger and better-known National Multiple Sclerosis Society of New York met all its fund-raising standards in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2000. Its fund-raising costs were 17 percent of related contributions. “All I can say is we met 21 of their 23 standards,” says Kuperberg, whose reported compensation last year was about $83,000. “The standards they felt we did not meet were open to interpretation. The fact is, they are not a government agency. And we are in compliance with every government agency.” This spring, his group’s fund-raising efforts got a big boost from the family of the Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, a member of the popular hip hop musical group TLC. After Lopes was killed in a car accident in Honduras on April 25, her family asked fans to send condolence offerings to the foundation at its national headquarters in Fort Lauderdale. Out in Arizona, though, foundation founder Manning-Albrecht is scratching out an existence with her husband Paul Albrecht, who is disabled with a head injury from a car crash. “She’s destitute now,” says attorney Rosenberg, who notes she lost her unemployment compensation claim against the foundation. “She wasn’t wealthy before, but she now has about zero income.” Manning-Albrecht still can walk with minimal assistance, though her balance isn’t good, Rosenberg says. The shakiness “comes and goes,” he says. Currently unable to land a job, Manning-Albrecht wonders about the organization and job she loved, and what went wrong. “I was dying when I founded the foundation, and I was doing better and able to do more when I was fired,” she says. “Why did they fire me? I have absolutely no idea.”

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