On the heels of CFO scandal, former Eli Lilly exec alleges sex discrimination, harassment in bombshell lawsuit

Eli Lilly faced a high-level personnel scandal last month when CFO Josh Smiley left under a cloud of "inappropriate" communications with employees. But a sex discrimination lawsuit from a former internal lobbyist uncovers an entirely new controversy—and offers an alleged look inside the culture of a key team.

Sonya Elling, a longtime biopharma lobbyist who worked in Lilly's government affairs operation, sued the company alleging mistreatment by her supervisors on the basis that she is a female.

The lawsuit claims Elling was once regarded as a "powerhouse" in biopharma government affairs, but her reputation suffered "irreparable" damage from her experiences at Lilly.

The allegations paint a picture of a dysfunctional workplace where several women were mistreated by their supervisors—female and male—and eventually forced out.

During Elling's time at the company, her first- and second-level supervisors called her “mean,” “nasty,” “disruptive,” “rude,” “aggressive,” and a “bitch,” according to the suit. They did so because she is a "strong, assertive female," who didn't "conform to traditional gender stereotypes," the suit says.

The managers also mocked her appearance and attributed her "professional success solely to her physical appearance, despite her outstanding credentials and job performance," the suit says. 

A Lilly spokeswoman said the company 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."

"We hold all employees accountable to our core values and believe our executives carry an even higher burden in ensuring those values are upheld," she added. "Lilly strongly denies the allegations in the lawsuit and will vigorously defend against these baseless claims.”

The managers allegedly excluded Elling from key meetings, disparaged her internally and externally and made up "pretextual reasons" to put her on a performance improvement plan, her suit says. One manager placed "his crotch at her eye level" and grabbed it during meetings, the suit alleges.

Eventually, the company terminated her.

RELATED: Eli Lilly CFO steps down—and gives up $24M-plus in cash and equity—after investigation finds 'inappropriate' behavior

Elling joined Lilly in 2003 as a director on the Federal Government Affairs team. In 2005, she became a senior director. She didn't raise any complaints about her first decade at Lilly; in fact, the suit says her performance record was "spotless" before 2019.

Leigh Ann Pusey (Eli Lilly)

In 2017, Lilly named Leigh Ann Pusey its senior vice president of corporate affairs.

"From the beginning of Ms. Pusey’s tenure with Lilly, she regularly mocked and belittled Ms. Elling" and other female colleagues, the suit says, "both within the company and to external stakeholders."

Pusey referred to Elling and another employee as a "bitch," and said Elling couldn't work with members of Congress because she was "not a cute, young thing," the suit says.

Lilly's new SVP also commented on the weight and fashion choices of female colleagues, the suit says, and "demonstrated a noticeable preference for male colleagues." 

But the situation wasn't as bad then as it would eventually become, the lawsuit alleges. Elling initially reported directly to Joseph Kelley, Lilly's now-former VP of global government and international corporate affairs. Kelley "shielded" her and a colleague "from the more severe discriminatory and retaliatory actions that Ms. Pusey desired to take against them," the suit says.

Shawn O'Neail (Eli Lilly)

When Kelley retired in 2019, the company brought on Shawn O’Neail as Elling's direct supervisor, and the new exec openly said he was "hired to clean house," according to the lawsuit. Eventually, he fabricated reasons to put Elling and another employee on performance improvement plans; both ended up leaving the drugmaker, the lawsuit states. 

During meetings with Elling and another employee, O'Neail made "sexually aggressive gestures," according to the lawsuit.

O'Neail also told a representative with biopharma industry trade group PhRMA that he joined Lilly to "clean house," hurting Elling's reputation, the suit says. During meetings with Elling, O'Neail didn't offer any job feedback, but instead worked to gather "political intelligence" before firing her, the suit says.

Elling only named Eli Lilly as a defendant in her suit—opting against naming any executives.

She's suing Eli Lilly under the Civil Rights Act and seeking back pay, front pay, emotional distress damages, reputational damages and more. She sued Lilly in Washington, D.C., federal court.

Aside from her own exit from the drugmaker, Elling says several other women have parted ways with the company as a result of their treatment. 

The suit comes right on the heels of Lilly CFO Josh Smiley's high-profile exit from the company. Last month, Lilly said Smiley would leave and forfeit $24 million in cash and equity pay after a probe discovered "consensual though inappropriate personal communications between Mr. Smiley and certain Lilly employees."