Lawsuit: Amazon Fired Executive For Upgrading Flight To New Zealand

Amazon’s former head of visual effects for Amazon Studios, Marc Sadeghi, is suing the company saying he was fired for upgrading a flight to New Zealand despite a medical condition he claims made coach travel impossible. If he wins, upgrades as a disability accommodation could become the emotional support animals of the 2020s.

Sadeghi says he didn’t know about Amazon’s ‘coach only’ travel policy until after he took the job, and his back problems (“scoliosis and sciatica”) mean he needs room to stretch out. Amazon’s policy is unusual for a movie studio, and Sadeghi says that several times he sought a reasonable accommodation.

Sadeghi had informed his supervisors that he could suffer severe pain if forced to sit in coach, especially on flights longer than five hours. Ken Lipman, the studio’s head of drama production, was not unsympathetic. He suggested that Sadeghi should try to get a medical clearance from Amazon. But Sadeghi knew that could take months, and he was needed in New Zealand right away.

Tim Clawson, Sadeghi’s manager, was less helpful, according to the suit. When Sadeghi told him that a 14-hour flight could leave him in such pain that it would take two months to recover, Clawson said that was a “bummer.”

That’s when Sadeghi turned to internet rumors and bad advice, which are nearly ubiquitous surrounding upgrades: “Through the grapevine, Sadeghi heard he could get a free upgrade on Air New Zealand. He asked the assistant to get him on the list.” He learned, though, that his “assistant had failed to do so” because of course there’s no such thing for the average flyer.

The executive in his suit says his assistant told him that his boss “had previously used the company credit card to pay for an upgrade at the gate, and handled it internally afterwards. So he told his assistant to do likewise, figuring he would sort it out upon his return.” Blame the assistant!

He charged an upgrade to premium economy to his Amazon credit card (the company credit card, not the 5% cash back on Amazon charges one, natch). And when he returned from New Zealand he was confronted by H.R.

As a sidenote: people often get confused and think HR is there to help them, to sort out conflicts and serve as some sort of neutral arbiter of disputes. HR is there to protect the company from lawsuits and handle administrative tasks for management. HR is not your friend. He was asked,

“Have you ever asked your assistant to run personal errands?”

“Have you ever sent your assistant a picture of a cartoon penis?”

“Have you ever instructed your assistant to break policy?”

He knew his assistant had “turned on him” and was ‘disloyal’ after all he’d “caught his assistant secretly recording him” the month before. In his defense, he says other executives at the company routinely behave badly, too.

He’s suing for “disability discrimination, failing to provide a reasonable accommodation, and wrongful termination.”

(HT: Paddle Your Own Kanoo)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Why wouldn”t he just offer to pay the difference for the unauthorized up grade? I’m sure he makes the big bucks!

  2. Yeah – sounds like this guy had issues way beyond this flight and is using this as an excuse to get out of past behavior he knew he could legitimately get fired for. Since when are assistant’s supposed to be “loyal” to their supervisor. They’re company employees. And this person just randomly started recording him for no reason? And the HR rep just asked questions about penis cartoons out of thin air. To further what you say about HR – yes – they’re there to protect the company. Any a company like Amazon will have an HR person who knows they cannot fire someone without documented grounds so I’m going to guess there’s a hell of a lot more here than the one sided allegations.

  3. He tries to excuse his bad behavior by saying other people do it too? I guess I just have a different idea of what constitutes leadership.

  4. Is that second question a standard HR line of inquiry at Amazon? If not, it seems like there is a missing piece to the story.

  5. Weird that there is no mention of this article about the allegations of a number of other misuse of company funds or his apparent fondness of using the C-word. One of the things they asked about was sending his assistant a picture of a cartoon penis for crying out loud. That should be a red flag right there, even his own assistant was apparently recording him. This article leaves out a number of key pieces of information.

  6. wow what a bunch of whinier’s. First ( no pun) that is Amazon’s policy which if I am not mistaken is fully disclosed to any employee prior to or at point of hire. If this person truly had (doubtful) a medical condition they should have made that point at hiring. Then to ask an assistant to essentially break company rules essentially doing his dirty work ! Why is everyone so down on Amazon because they won’t fly their people in business or first? I am in the construction business with a office in Seattle and can tell you its tanking all on it’s own take Amazon out makes it worse. There are many companies already moving people out, look at my backlog of work tells that tale.

  7. Im not flying to NZ coach for business. And I’m a nobody. So I dont blame the guy.

    However anyone in entertainment expected to travel, knows what the travel policy is before they take the job. And anyone working for Amazon in entertainment or advertising knows its a tough place to work.

  8. Not sure how he thinks he has grounds to sue if he admitted that he didn’t want to “wait months” in order to follow the company’s “reasonable accommodation” process. His supervisor recommended he get medical clearance; he chose not to. End of story.

  9. This whole discussion is actually quite relevant, because there is a significant group of people, to which I belong who are don’t have any pre-exisiting condition except being tall (6 ft. 5) with unusually long legs. (The same also applies to being wider than the average. ) After a coach flight to Seoul many years ago where I had to sit with my legs at a 45 degree angle, it took about 15 minute before they started cramping. So I stood in the galley for half of the 10 hour red-eye from Europe. I flat out told management that this is a violation of workplace rules, and from then on I always flew business for long haul. This was a sensible application of rules.

    The discrimination against tall or wide people is unacceptable. Imagine a shoe store only having size 8, since that is the average. But many people are very busy turning on the “you spoiled luxury brat” spiel and accusing me of being a whiner. .

    When i buy my own ticket for private trips, I always buy biz for long-haul because of body size. With a typical marginal tax rate in Europe of 50% I have to work “twice as long” for the price of the ticket, while the larger companies already have lucrative discounts on Biz (I’ve seen 20-30%) and on top of that they get a tax break on the ticket (assuming the marginal consideration that it comes out of profit). So for a typical long-haul ticket: List prices $1200 in coach $4000 in biz.

    As a private person I have to earn $8000 (pre-tax) for biz. For the same ticket the company has a secret discount of about 25% bringing it down to $3000 and after a tax deduction of 25% ends up costing $2250.

    I’ve often throught about starting a movement fighting discrimination against people with body measurments higher than average.

  10. Was intrigued when I started reading this tale, really piqued my curiosity when I read the questions from HR and I recalled an old adage: “No matter how thin you make them, pancakes will always have two sides”

  11. Back in the 90’s my employer had a policy of business class to Asia from the USA (I was flying out of Houston to Beijing with a transit in Narita). One time they were out of business class seats or didn’t have business class, so I had our travel assistant get first class. My management complained a little about the cost but that was all. I think corporations like my employer should allow business or first class because they expect you to get in the ground running.

  12. Because everyone understands coach sucks ass, the company I work for has a policy that you can upgrade to business class for flights longer than 5 hours without any expense issues. Guess not every company gives at least a quarter of a shit for their employees, even ones run by the richest man in the world

  13. Why didn’t he pay for the upgrade in advance out of his own pocket and then “sort it out afterwards”? Too entitled?

  14. With the new reality, problems like this are going to be about as relevant as which buggy whip should I buy.

  15. That a company with a market cap almost 5x larger than the entire airline industry and revenue almost double that of the GDP of New Zealand forces its employees to fly coach to New Zealand is crazy. Bezos alone is worth significantly more than the entire US airlines industry and could just about buy New Zealand himself.

  16. Also if he got fired for PE, that sucks! Seems to me if he got the old school NZ PE that’s punishment enough. Perhaps should have read more of the blogs to see the smart play would be getting the sky couch!

  17. Yeah the ol’ “muh sciatica” is just a bunch of horseshit entitled people toss around when convenient to get better shit. My Jewish uncle in-law puts that charade on every time we go to a hotel, Brooklyn accent and all. 90% of the time he gets some upgrade to something.

    Reality is anyone who can physically fit in the seat can fly in the seat and manage or they shouldn’t be on a plane at all.

    “Buh I don’t like coach”- no one cares
    “But Muh CONDITION!!!!- “oh yes sir mister XYZ we’ll get on that right away!”

  18. Well, this guy’s arguments are definitely shady so there is certainly more to the story. Having said that, Amazon not allowing even Premium Economy for long-haur international flights is just plain stupid (i suppose that’s how Bezos made his billions). I can understand, business class can get really expensive, especially with lots of employees traveling. But PE ?? cmon on

  19. He is a “former head” and he had to turn to internet for bad advice. He is a “former head” and does not know the company’s travel policy. Either he tried to get away with it OR he must be the dumbest person in the planet. Good luck with the lawsuit. “Employment at will” means company can fire you for any reason, let alone you violated the company’s policy. Oh and one more thing- he badmouth about his bosses/supervisors. Let’s see what corporation will hire this kind of employee.

  20. As in house counsel, if the HR rep asks you if you have ever sent your assistant a picture of a penis, cartoon or otherwise, she has a copy of the email and the picture in the file she brought in, so you are better off resigning than answering the question. I am not Amazon’s lawyer, but I have been asked to sit in on enough of these meetings to feel confident that was the case here.

  21. Amazon is a snake pit to begin with, so I’m not surprised his assistant was recording him. I have plenty of former colleagues who have gone to Amazon, and they all confirm its corporate culture is cutthroat, up or out, destroy or be destroyed.

  22. What he said ^^^^
    More sensationalist headlines. There appear to be at least 3 issues here.

    First, you have an executive behaving badly. Assuming he did all of the things implied by the HR questions, he could be terminated for misconduct based on those actions alone. The violation of travel policy is possibly irrelevant to the termination or just piling on.

    Second, you have Amazon’s heinous travel policy. For a company that is more profitable than just about any other, they have one of the worst travel policies. The economy class requirement (for international travel) is well known and has been in place for years. Contrast to Apple and many others (including my employer) that permit business class travel for international flights >5 hours. Amazon clearly does not care about the health and well being of employees and clearly does not expect them to be productive when they land on another continent. For this reason alone you could not pay me enough to work for Amazon.

    Third, it is not clear whether Amazon prohibits employees from upgrading flights on their own dime. When I worked for USG I was actually prohibited from upgrading a ticket purchased with government funds (this was a rule unique to my agency). Does Amazon have a similar policy? If not then the employee was quite foolish not to pay an upgrade fee v. being in pain for months. Suck it up and then work it later with your boss, HR, etc. Violating policy by charging the upgrade to your corporate card is a sure ticket to termination.

  23. A few comments:
    1) @Chadbuttkissplantfood: You are flat wrong, and more than a bit offensive. My wife has severe degenerative spinal stenosis and arthritis in her lumbar back. The radiology scans are nasty. After seeing more than 10 doctors in several states over the last 4 years, trying every proposed treatment short of reconstructive back surgery (think rods and screws inserted permanently to stabilize), she is at the point where standing in one spot for more than 10 minutes, or walking more than 50 feet, or sitting for more than about 30 minutes in a coach seat is unbearably painful. We fly up front or not at all (but, hey, it’s been our own money since 2010). You simply don’t know.
    2) @Frank: You are spot on. If HR slips a question pertaining to potential harassment into an interview, the interviewee is dead meat. Remember: HR is there to protect the interests of management, not the interests of the employee. If you are lower than a C-suite executive, they are never your friend.
    3) To all those who asked, “Why not just pay for it and sort it out later?” — absolutely agree. And never, never pay for arguably personal expenses using your corporate credit card. I’ve seen people fired for buying porn movies in their hotel room and putting the charges on their corporate card. Remember, your corporate account, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion.

  24. Foolish man. Either get a doctor’s note saying you are unfit to fly coach and request to do the meeting by video call (thus putting the onus on your boss to defy medical advice and order you to take a flight that is dangerous for you) or pay yourself and request reimbursement later (in full knowledge that they will likely deny your request).

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