(Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM) (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)

A former senior staff member of the NAACP has claimed that the storied civil rights group and its president and CEO, Derrick Johnson, violated the Family Medical Leave Act by demoting her following a medically necessary month away from work.

Abeni Bloodworth alleged in her filing in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York that Johnson first demoted, and later fired, as retaliation for her taking a month off to recover from a blood clot in June.

At the time, Bloodworth said, she had been recently promoted to interim chief development officer by Johnson. Ahead of the NAACP’s annual meeting that year, Bloodworth was in charge of fundraising efforts directed by Johnson, according to the complaint. She claims she was pressured by Johnson to raise an extra $1 million from donors in one month to cover an anticipated cost over-run for the convention—something Bloodworth said she resisted as both a bad business practice and a show of poor management before donors.

The undue stress placed on her by Johnson allegedly contributed to her poor health, according to the complaint. During a business trip to Atlanta, Bloodworth said she was hospitalized for a blood clot in her lung and was advised by her doctor not to work for a period of time.

Bloodworth said she applied for, and received, FMLA-based leave that was supported by documentation from her physician. Yet when she returned to work at the end of June, she was told she was being removed as CDO, reverting back to a more junior position at a much lower salary. Two days later, the complaint alleges that Johnson announced to her former development team that Bloodworth’s demotion was due to health challenges, which Bloodworth said was the first time the explanation was provided to her.

According to the complaint, Johnson discussed the timing of Bloodworth’s illness, calling it interesting that she should experience health problems a month before the convention.

“It was more than ‘interesting’ to Johnson that Bloodworth had dared take a medical leave as the NAACP’s annual conference approached: He sought to punish and discourage such exercise of FMLA and disability rights, even where Johnson himself had helped create significant health issues,” the complaint stated.

Bloodworth was terminated in mid-August. She claims that, prior to taking medical leave, she received no warning or notice of any poor job performance issues. Quite the opposite, she claims: Up until then, the only discussed plans were for her to take over the CDO position permanently.

Foulke Law Firm attorney Michael Ranis is representing Bloodworth. He said the suit represented an important opportunity for Bloodworth to “speak up” after the NAACP has shown “great disrespect for her.”

“This is an organization that stands for civil rights, and it’s important they be held accountable for Ms. Bloodworth’s exercising her individual rights on a medical leave issue—that’s a civil right also,” Ranis said.

A spokeswoman for the NAACP also did not respond to requests for comment.

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