Lilly exec created hostile work environment for women, former lobbyist claims in suit

A former Washington, D.C., lobbyist for Eli Lilly and Co. claims a top executive at the company made sexist comments about her, mocked her physical appearance and subjected her and other women to a hostile work environment.

Sonya Elling filed suit Friday in federal court in Washington against the Indianapolis-based drugmaker, alleging that Leigh Ann Pusey, senior vice president for corporate affairs and communications, precluded her from engaging with members of Congress because she was “not a cute, young thing.”

Elling worked for Lilly for 16 years as a lobbyist, rising to become senior director of government affairs. She resigned in 2019, two years after Pusey joined the company and began overseeing her department.

In her complaint, Elling said Pusey mocked her for gaining weight during her recovery from knee surgery and mocked the weight of several other female employees. She also mocked a female employee’s vocal tone and speaking style, and the dress style of several women.

Pusey, widely regarded as one of the most influential women in Washington, was hired by CEO Dave Ricks just a few months after he took the top job at the drugmaker in January 2017. Pusey succeeded Bart Peterson, a former mayor of Indianapolis, who had held that position for seven years.

In a statement, Lilly denied the allegations in the lawsuit but said it would not comment on the details.

“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,” Kathryn Beiser, Lilly’s vice president of global communications, said in an email to IBJ. “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 less than two months after another Lilly executive, chief financial officer Josh Smiley, left the company after engaging in an “inappropriate personal relationship” with a Lilly employee.

According to Elling’s complaint, Pusey routinely made sexist and demeaning remarks about her, calling Elling “mean,” “nasty,” “disruptive,” “rude,” “aggressive” and “a bitch.”

The complaint said Pusey was forced to apologize to Lilly’s federal government affairs team in Washington in 2018 after another female complained that Pusey had made several derogatory remarks about women in the office.

But Pusey then began to freeze Elling and certain other female employees out of important working groups, projects and communications that were part of their job responsibilities, the suit alleges.

Elling also accused another executive, Shawn O’Neail, who was hired in May 2019 as her supervisor, of grabbing his crotch in front of her and other women on numerous occasions.

In November 2019, O’Neail, whose title was vice president for federal and state government affairs, issued Elling a written performance improvement plan (commonly called a PIP), that accused her of being disruptive, rude and aggressive. O’Neail had stated he was “hired to clean house” at Lilly, the lawsuit said.

Elling said the PIP was unwarranted. She said that during her nearly 17 years with Lilly, she earned “exemplary” or “satisfactory” performance ratings and qualified for annual merit-based bonuses, raises and stock awards.

Elling left Lilly in December 2019, saying she was forced to resign due to Pusey’s and O’Neail’s discrimination against her. She took a job as a senior director at Bluebird Bio, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech company researching treatments for genetic disorders.

She said as a result of her experience at Lilly under Pusey, she has suffered from health problems, including migraine headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure and anxiety.

Elling’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for lost pay and emotional harm.

The case is Sonya Elling v. Eli Lilly and Company, 1:21-cv-00824.

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