Philly Council’s Brian O’Neill Fired Staffer Alleging Harassment
The office of a Philadelphia City Council member fired a staff member who took medical leave for mental health treatment after a complaint that she was sexually harassed by another staffer.
Philadelphia City Council member and Minority Leader Brian O’Neill, the last remaining Republican on the council after this month’s elections, fired an administrative assistant in his office in April 2017, less than six months after she accused a co-worker of sexual harassment, according to court documents.
The administrative assistant, Linda Trush, sued the city in 2021 and alleged that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by a co-worker and subjected to a hostile work environment before being unlawfully terminated from her job. In her suit, Trush said she was retaliated against after reporting “severe and pervasive sexual harassment” and taking medical leave for mental health treatment as a result of the alleged harassment. (Trush’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Despite Plaintiff’s aforesaid excellent performance, her work environment was tainted by the severe and pervasive sexual harassment that she was subjected to in 2014,” the lawsuit says, “and the retaliation that followed once she complained of the same.”
The city responded to the suit in January 2022 denying Trush’s allegations of harassment. Earlier, the city stated that it was “unable to substantiate” the harassment claim. The case is still pending. “As this lawsuit is in active litigation, the City declines to comment at this time,” Ava Schwemler, director of communications for the City of Philadelphia Law Department, which is representing the city, said in a statement to The Intercept. (O’Neill did not respond to a request for comment.)
O’Neill represents northeast Philadelphia and was first elected to the City Council in 1979.
Two of the council’s seven at-large seats are reserved for nonmajority parties and had historically gone to Republicans. In 2019, Working Families Party candidate Kendra Brooks was elected to one of the slots, making history as the first candidate outside the two major parties to hold a council seat in a century. After Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke, another WFP candidate, won at-large seats in this month’s election, O’Neill is the last remaining Republican on the council.
While the WFP campaigned on shutting out GOP council candidates, the Philadelphia Democratic Party openly opposed the party’s candidates in this cycle. The week before the election, Philadelphia Democratic City Committee Chair Bob Brady emailed city ward leaders and threatened to expel those who had signed onto a letter supporting Brooks and O’Rourke unless they recanted before the election.
City Democrats backed O’Neill’s challenger Gary Masino, leader of the Sheet Metal Workers union. Masino lost to O’Neill by 22 points.
“You Will Lose Your Job”
O’Neill’s office hired Trush in 2010. Trush said she was harassed by a co-worker on multiple occasions starting in 2014 and that the harassment continued until the co-worker was moved to a different department in 2015, according to court documents filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Trush claimed that on different occasions, the co-worker kissed her face, put his hands down her pants, and told her to kiss his genitals. When she refused his advances and threatened to report him, according to Trush’s suit, the co-worker told her, “If you report me, trust me you will lose your job over me first. They will believe me, not you.”
Shortly after her co-worker’s transfer, Trush said she experienced a decline in mental health including depression and panic attacks that led to a post-traumatic stress breakdown in November 2016. Trush told her husband about the harassment, and he contacted O’Neill by text message and asked him to investigate and take action. Following her husband’s outreach, Trush reported the harassment to O’Neill, and, according to Trush’s complaint, O’Neill told both Trush and her husband that the co-worker was a “predator who needed to be stopped.” (The city, in its response in court, said, “Councilman O’Neill stated that if what Plaintiff’s husband told him is true, then Shain is a predator, and Councilman O’Neill stated that the allegations should be reported to the police.”)
After reporting the alleged harassment, Trush requested and took a leave of absence, which she said in her suit was for mental health treatment. (In its response, the city only admitted she took leave, not the impetus.) She left work for three months and returned in February 2017. Upon her return to work, Trush learned that the office had not begun an investigation into her report of sexual harassment and that she would be returning to work in the same office with the co-worker she had reported. Trush complained and asked that her co-worker be moved to another office. Instead, the office reassigned her to its City Hall location, an hour from her home.
Trush alleged that the new office environment was hostile too. She was told she would no longer report directly to O’Neill as she had for the last six years, but to his executive assistant. She said office management refused to move her office supplies and items to the new location and that she was not given an employee access card, meaning she had to obtain a visitor’s pass every day and use public restrooms instead of employee restrooms.
After several requests for an update on her report of harassment, Trush said she received a letter from a human resources representative who said they had completed the investigation and could not substantiate Trush’s claims.
A week later, O’Neill informed Trush she was being reassigned to a new department. Trush asked O’Neill to reconsider the change and to accommodate her ongoing mental and physical health treatment stemming from the alleged harassment. She told O’Neill she believed the reassignment was retaliation for her complaint. One month after being reassigned, Trush was given a letter stating that after “an internal staff review,” her employment was being terminated. Trush asked her new manager why she was being terminated, who replied, “You know why,” according to the lawsuit. When Trush asked the manager to explain, they replied, “Maybe you shouldn’t have made a complaint.”