AOL’s Armstrong had past legal tangle over complicated pregnancy

After finding himself in a media firestorm last week, AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong backpedaled furiously on Saturday, announcing that he would be reversing the changes he made to the company’s 401(k) policy.  He also apologized for justifying the policy by placing the blame on new federal health-care law and medical expenses associated with two “distressed babies” of staffers.

This is not the first time Armstrong has been at the center of a debate over discrimination. In 2005, when Armstrong was a vp of national sales at Google, a former sales director sued the company — and Armstrong specifically — for misconduct when she was pregnant with quadruplets.

Christina Elwell, with the blessing of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleged she was demoted from her position as national sales director and then fired in June 2004 after she told Armstrong she had medical issues related to her pregnancy that would prevent her from traveling. The suit, which can be read here, ultimately went into arbitration. But it paints a harrowing picture of what it was like for her to work for Armstrong at a high level while pregnant:

  •  Elwell, who had been hired by Google in 2000, told Armstrong in 2004 that due to complications with her pregnancy with quadruplets, she would not be able to travel until after having given birth. She then lost two of her unborn children, after which Elwell was allegedly demoted by Armstrong and her sales position filled by a more junior staffer.
  • Armstrong “told Elwell that he wanted to transfer her to a position in Google’s operations department that had virtually no relationship to her former sales position, no direct tie to sales revenue, no management responsibilities and did not in any way use Elwell’s 15 years of sales experience,” the lawsuit alleged.
  • The following month, “Armstrong called Elwell into his office and told her that she was ‘an HR nightmare’ and that he no longer wanted her in the New York office,” according to the suit. The very next day, according to the filing, “Armstrong called Elwell and fired her over the telephone. Armstrong told Elwell that he had a ‘gut feeling’ that it was ‘the right thing to do,’ that Elwell ‘did not understand the direction the company was taking.'”
  • Google shortly thereafter admitted Elwell had been “fired improperly,” according to the suit. Armstrong created a position that was allegedly even more of a demotion that had been offered before, and “assigned her to a project similar to those given to summer interns,” according to the suit. “Elwell was humiliated in front of the sales force that she had managed just weeks earlier.”
  • Armstrong is alleged to have later told her that “he was ‘uncomfortable’ having Elwell in the office and that it would be better if Elwell left and worked from home.”
  • Elwell, according to the suit, had to go on disability leave shortly there after — during which time she lost the third baby and ultimately gave birth to just one of the four quadruplets she had been pregnant with. The job she was asked to return to was a “low-level operations position.” She filed a complaint with the EEOC, left the company and subsequently sued.

Neither Elwell nor her attorney could be reached at the time of this writing. Amy Lambert, Google senior employment counsel at the time, said in a statement when the case when to arbitration: “We are pleased that the judge granted our motion and we look forward to having this matter addressed before an arbitrator. We believe the suit has no merit.”

The current controversy surrounding Armstrong’s latest remarks about “distressed babies” does not appear to be dying down any time soon. “On a personal note,” he wrote in his mea culpa to staffers, “I made a mistake and I apologize for my comments last week at the town hall when I mentioned specific healthcare examples.”

The apology did little to comfort Deanna Fei, the mother of one of the “distressed babies.” Slate published an eloquent and moving account of Fei’s healthcare saga Sunday which both underscores Armstrong insensitivity and the generosity of the benefits AOL has since reinstated.

“Our daughter has already overcome more setbacks than most of us have endured in the span of our lives,” she wrote. “Having her very existence used as a scapegoat for cutting corporate benefits was one indignity too many.”

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