Exclusive: Ex-lobbyist sues Eli Lilly alleging sexual discrimination, harassment

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FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: An Eli Lilly and Company pharmaceutical manufacturing plant is pictured in Branchburg, New Jersey

By Marisa Taylor and Dan Levine

(Reuters) – A former top lobbyist for pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co accused a high-ranking executive and another senior manager of engaging in sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation against women in its Washington D.C. office, according to a lawsuit filed Friday.

The suit, filed in federal court by in-house lobbyist Sonya Elling, alleges that a Lilly senior vice president, Leigh Ann Pusey, repeatedly demeaned Elling and other women, and eventually forced Elling to resign. Elling’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for lost pay and alleged reputational and emotional harm.

Pusey, senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications, was one of Chief Executive Officer Dave Ricks’s first appointments upon taking the role in 2017.

Eli Lilly is the only named defendant in the suit. Pusey did not respond to requests for comment.

A Lilly spokeswoman denied the allegations in the suit. “Lilly is committed to fostering and promoting a culture of diversity and respect, and a work environment free of discrimination, harassment or retaliation of any kind,” the spokeswoman, Kathryn Beiser, said. “We hold all employees accountable to our core values and believe our executives carry an even higher burden in ensuring those values are upheld.”

The lawsuit comes as other allegations of inappropriate or retaliatory actions by Lilly executives against employees at Lilly have surfaced. Last month, Lilly announced that the company’s chief financial officer, Josh Smiley, resigned after Lilly said in a securities filing that he had engaged in “consensual though inappropriate personal communications” with employees. Smiley declined to comment.

Reuters reported earlier this month that a former Lilly human resources manager alleged she had been forced out of her job because she repeatedly raised concerns with executives about manufacturing problems at a New Jersey factory. Lilly told Reuters it has rigorous quality assurance programs in place and welcomes employee feedback.

Elling had worked as an in-house lobbyist for Lilly since 2003, rising to become a senior director in 2005.

Pusey, named to her post in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election, has worked for several Republican leaders and organizations including the Republican National Committee, according to her online Lilly executive bio.

The suit alleges that Elling and other women were subjected to sexist comments by Pusey and another senior manager, including that they were “nasty,” “bitches,” “disruptive” “aggressive,” and “rude.” Pusey regularly mocked Elling’s appearance and that of other women while noticeably treating male employees more favorably, the suit states.

In 2018, according to the suit, another woman lobbyist at Lilly filed an internal complaint against Pusey, alleging that she had created a hostile workplace and made several offensive comments about Elling and others. That lobbyist is not named in the lawsuit.

In May of that year, a Lilly human resources investigator interviewed Elling about the other lobbyist’s complaint, which Elling corroborated, the suit said. Ultimately the investigator found the complaint to have merit, according to the suit.

After that, the lawsuit said, Pusey began to exclude Elling and others who participated in the complaint investigation from briefings of senior leaders.

In 2019, Pusey hired an executive, Democrat Shawn O’Neail, to directly supervise Elling and other lobbyists, the suit states. O’Neail engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior in the office, including “sexual self-groping,” during meetings with Elling in her office, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit alleges that O’Neail had a history of misogynist and racist conduct at pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG, where he had previously worked, and that he once used the N-word to refer to a Black executive at a rival drug company. The company, Pfizer Inc, declined to comment.

O’Neail, who was not named as a defendant in the suit, did not respond to requests for comment. Novartis declined to comment.

O’Neail was brought in to “clean house,” the lawsuit said, by terminating Elling and another employee, the lawsuit said. According to the suit, O’Neail falsely accused Elling of making disparaging statements about Lilly to congressional staff. He eventually put Elling on a job performance improvement plan, according to the suit.

On December 1, 2019, Elling sent a resignation email to top executives, saying she was forced into the decision due to Pusey and O’Neail’s discrimination and retaliation against her, the suit said.

(Marisa Taylor reported from Washington DC, Dan Levine from San Francisco. Editing by Michele Gershberg and Julie Marquis)

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