By  on January 8, 2014

A Florida-based handbag designer has filed a lawsuit against Chico’s FAS Inc. claiming the company forced her to copy other designers’ creations.

First hired as a freelancer in August 2009 and then as a women’s handbag designer in January 2011, Paula Bonnafant was terminated in November 2011 “in retaliation for engaging in statutorily protected conduct.” The plaintiff claims that the entire eight-person accessories team was aware of the knockoffs, as was brand president Cinny Murray.

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Prior to her dismissal, she was twice written up, according to the lawsuit. Seeking a jury trial, Bonnafant claims to have suffered and to continue to suffer “irreparable injuries relating to the loss of income, property, wealth, professional standing and physical and emotional health, among other things.”

A Chico’s spokesman said Tuesday, “We believe the plaintiff’s allegations are without merit and we plan to vigorously defend.”

Bonnafant’s attorney, Benjamin Yormak, deferred questions to specific sections of the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, her job included designing original handbags for Chico’s and taking direction from accessory design director Phyllis Cerato regarding specific styles that Chico’s felt would be most marketable and profitable. Bonnafant allegedly first aired her concerns and objections with Cerato and scarf designer Megin Santos around May 2011. Bonnafant claims that she was concerned that she as well as the company could get into serious legal trouble for copying designs. The discussion allegedly became “heated,” and Bonnafant was told not to use the term “knockoff,” and to say “inspired by” other designer labels, the suit states.

The plaintiff also said a replica of a Marc Jacobs bag that Cerato and Santos had sampled was the exact color, shape and texture, and Bonnafant thought that must be changed, which was done. But Cerato “eventually used the original for production,” the suit alleges. In another instance, Bonnafant claimed Cerato chose a knockoff version of a bag but Chico’s legal team objected to “how close it was copied and required changes to be made. This occurrence was frequent.”

Filed late last month in Florida state court under Florida’s Whistleblower Act, Chico’s has opted to try to move the case to federal court, the Middle District of Florida. Yormak said that is being done “under the auspices of there being a ‘federal question’ as to patent-trademarks, which they contend forms the basis for the federal court, often thought to be more defendant-friendly.”

The Chico’s spokesman did not respond to a request for comment in response to that claim.

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