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Former assistant claims age and sex discrimination by Newport city attorney

A claim filed by a former Newport Beach assistant city attorney accuses her one-time boss, City Attorney Aaron Harp, of discrimination and creating a hostile workplace.

The City Council is scheduled to take up the matter Tuesday in the closed portion of its meeting under the agenda heading "anticipated litigation." A claim is a precursor to a possible lawsuit.

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In her complaint, lodged in May with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, Leonie Mulvihill, who worked for the city from December 2009 to January 2017, alleged ageism and sexism during years of mistreatment and retaliation from Harp.

She also accused the city of failing to investigate allegations she made against Harp in 2016, which she said prompted her to leave for a similar job with the city of Anaheim.

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Mulvihill, who is older than 40, detailed work reassignments and exclusion from previous duties, along with deteriorating performance reviews and a pattern of abuse that she said caused other employees to leave.

The claim did not request damages. Mulvihill has one year from the date of the filing to sue.

Harp denied wrongdoing in a statement Thursday night.

"I was surprised and disappointed that Ms. Mulvihill decided to file a claim against the city of Newport Beach," he said. "I always thought we had a mutual and professional respect for each other. The allegations in her claim are untrue and do not reflect my understanding of Ms. Mulvihill's experience working at the city."

Harp became Newport's city attorney in September 2011 after a stint in the Anaheim city attorney's office.

Early on, Mulvihill said, Harp told her that "his approach to handling problem employees was to ride them until they quit or get fired."

In 2012, she said, she was no longer invited to interview potential counsel, as she had previously, after she challenged Harp on his statements about projects she was working on. "Apparently, Harp could not understand her projects," according to the claim.

"Coincidentally," the claim stated, she received a performance evaluation two months before her usual annual review. Two months later, her regular review said she was only meeting expectations, in contrast to her evaluations before Harp, which she said were always excellent.

In 2013, according to the claim, Harp went on vacation and did not assign her the duties of acting city attorney, instead assigning them to a lower-ranking deputy city attorney.

In 2014, Harp reassigned her from land use and planning to risk management and litigation, giving planning assignments to a male attorney with less experience in the area, she said.

When Mulvihill was named Employee of the Year in 2015, Harp did not attend the award presentation, she said.

Mulvihill said she spoke to Harp in 2016 about the way attorneys in the office were treating support staff. Mulvihill told Harp she was concerned about bullying and a hostile work environment for women.

According to the claim, he started questioning her about her work hours, which she said he did not do to younger male attorneys, and gave her a letter that summer saying her job performance was a problem. She wrote a grievance to the city and was interviewed by an outside investigator in August 2016, but said she never heard anything further.

She said she also complained to the city in 2014 and got no response.

Ultimately, the claim stated, Mulvihill saw "the writing on the wall as other women had seen" and starting looking for a job elsewhere.

The city said in a statement that the 2016 investigation closed after months of work with the conclusion that Mulvihill's allegations were unsubstantiated. He said she voluntarily resigned during the investigation.

Mulvihill also recounted female colleagues' issues, including being transferred to another department after "harassment" from Harp, being suspended without sufficient cause and eventually leaving, though it's unclear how many employees the claim was referring to because the document is redacted.

The claim also included an allegation of harsh treatment that led to the retirement of an attorney. Redactions make it unclear whether the attorney was a man or a woman.

Twitter: @Daily_PilotHD

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