Friday, September 10, 2010

Rachel Aydt vs. Girl's Life- judgment in favor of plaintiff

First, let me say that I am telling this story because for a decade I've been teaching magazine journalism at the New School, and I think this story emulates a very real side of the freelance journalism life. Why would I drive nearly six hours each way to stand in a freezing courtroom just so I can get paid $1,500 by a crappy teen girl's magazine? Am I crazy? Two years ago, when (the far superior) CosmoGirl shuttered its doors forever, I made a hard decision. I would make a go of freelance writing, a sort of horrifying prospect for a couple with a kid to feed. My husband is an independent general contractor, and my job always gave us the stability of health insurance. As an aside, my decision was helped in huge part by the fact that the New School provides decent insurance coverage since I'm in their adjunct union.

So it was in good faith that I agreed to take on two extremely research-heavy pieces for the teen magazine Girl's Life shortly after CosmoGirl folded. The first was a piece on dating violence, which followed the Rihanna/ Chris Brown incident; the second was a piece about the dangers of distracted driving, a story which involved speaking to friends and family of teens who had been killed in tragic accidents. Draining work, and time consuming. I was paid for the dating violence story.

So not getting paid for my driving story, which took two weeks' time to research and write, using data from a study put out by State Farm, and locating sheriffs from car crash scenes, and family and friends of the dead, seemed unacceptable, particularly since there was a signed contract in play that said Pay Upon Publication (last August). The work itself was praised by my editor and later in an email, by State Farm. In fact, my first draft was published practically untouched, more untouched than the newsy features I saw come through CG for 9 years. Maybe a couple of "yous" were changed to "ya" --which I think smart teenagers find insulting and contrived, but I digress-- and a paragraph or two switched around, if that. Months later, after not getting paid, promises came in emails from the Editor in Chief, Karen Bokram ("the check will be cut in the February run"; "I'll keep you posted"; "Of course you'll get paid, and I appreciate your professionalism").... the check never came.

Girl's Life is registered in Maryland, roughly 20 miles from Washington D.C., and for that reason I found myself having to travel from New York to Rockville, MD for my court date-- either that, or take a "settlement" offered by her lawyers. I was confused-- what exactly was there to be settled? I wrote something, there was a contract, and she published it. Also, how can she afford lawyers if she can't afford to pay her writers? Maybe that's what lit the fire for me. Putting a check in the mail with a 44 cent stamp would settle the issue. Was she waiting to see if I'd travel round trip to Maryland to get paid? Her lawyer called me to ask if I was planning on making the trip, and I told him I was. I did show up, they didn't, and I won. Mysteriously, on the official record of the case which can be found online by anyone, you can see that they filed an intent to defend. Something about "must provide proof that $ is owed"... okay, so a contract and a published article seems like adequate proof; both, of which I'd submitted to the court as official evidence with my claim. I'm sure this is why they didn't show up. Whether this court judgment against Girl's Life will amount to a check in the mail remains unseen, but I feel proud that I stood up for myself. Making the trip wasn't a monetarily wise act on my part (twice, because I first sued the wrong entity, the owner of the mag rather than the corporation, because I'd misunderstood a clause in the "how to sue in small claims" brochure from MD that said it's best to sue the owner rather than the name of the company; I should have looked more deeply into that. I don't regret the quality time I spent that first time around with my lovely mother in law who first drove me from Philly to Rockville, giving me an initial lay of the land). Jim had to leave work early twice this week to pick up Jamie; gas, tolls, hotel came to roughly $250, and expenses can't be paid on small claims.

What was worth it though, was knowing that if I'm going to be my own business entity now, I have to learn how to navigate this last-resort terrain. Finally, I can now use this case as a teaching tool in my classes now that this judgment is on the public record.


  1. I think this is awesome, Rachel. I love how her lawyer called you to ask if you were planning on making the trip!! The balls! She probably had to pay the lawyer for a quarter of an hour just to make that phone call - but she can't pay YOU? I hope you find ways of re-using that article and/or its research so that it's not a total bust. And I do hope they send you your money - $1500 is nothing to sneeze at OR walk away from and even if it was, it's YOUR HARD-EARNED MONEY.

    Good job.

  2. You go, girl. I'm proud of you. I hope that damn check comes soon.

  3. This is an unbelievable story. Thank you for telling it--and glad you won the case, though sorry you had to go to such an effort and spend your own money. In my six or so years of freelancing, I tangled with some publications and had to pursue payment to the point of where it was ridiculous, but never to this degree. I have had great, reliable clients, like, and awful ones like Yoga Journal, who paid me in a timely manner, but nickel and dimed me in a way I never had experienced. They actually wanted me to bill by the quarter hour. So, though I understand your desire to make a go of freelance life--and I miss many aspects of it myself (and hope to return one day), I'm so happy to be employed by a big company at the moment, getting paid direct deposit, all that. But, yes...I miss it all, just not the payment hassles.

  4. You may like to know that things don't change....Girls Life is still payment-challenged. Glad I found your post. I wish I had sooner : )

  5. Have you been paid yet? The many court cases filed against Karen Bokram and Girl's Life magazine show that there is a history of delays, providing wrong addresses for servicing summons, asking for mediators, and other activities that keep GL from (paying) fulfilling the terms of their contracts with writers, printers, paper suppliers, other creditors. With the many attorneys that she has employed you wonder if they ever got paid.

  6. Rachel,

    Myself and 13 other former employees have been waiting over a year for wages they've withheld from us. Thank you for sharing your story, it rings very true for me. Personally, I am also owed $1500 for 200 hours of work. I've been trying to work with the department of labor to resolve this, but if that falls through I may have to file a case in small claims court. All of us are also young women early in our careers for whom fighting this will be financially difficult and time consuming. Kudos to you for doing it. The irony is not lost on me that we are being exploited by an organization that claims to support young women. Your experience is very illuminating if, sadly, not surprising. I would love to discuss your story with you more if you have time. We can use all the help we can get.

  7. Rachel, I've sued and gotten a judgement against the company. Helen, I suggest you go to small claims and do the same. We'll see if I can collect. I have my doubts but will do my best. Karen is horrifically unethical. I'd imagine I worked with one of you girls during my time there from Oct 2013 - Jan 2014. If it makes you feel any better, the judge saw right through her.