The former chief of staff to a Westmoreland County state legislator is suing him and members of the House Republican Caucus, alleging she was fired for reporting mold in the district office.
West Newton’s Marcel Nicole Ingram is suing in federal court for retaliation under Pennsylvania’s whistleblower law and violation of his First Amendment right to speak out on a matter of public interest.
Ingram was named Chief of Staff to State Representative Eric Davanzo in March 2020.
Neither Davanzo, the caucus’ chief counsel, nor a caucus spokesperson returned messages seeking comment Friday night.
In early May, according to the lawsuit, Ingram and another worker at the North Water Street district office in West Newton began to smell “strong foul odors” there.
They became so intense, according to the complaint, that they burned the women’s eyes, and both began to develop headaches when the smells were present.
On May 5, according to the complaint, Davanzo, R-Smithton, texted in response to Ingram’s complaint about the smell speculating it came from the district office neighbor.
“He did not respond to his staff’s concerns about their burning eyes,” the complaint said.
The lawsuit said Ingram repeatedly raised the issue with Davanzo and repeatedly referred her to the owner of the district office.
The lawsuit alleges that Ingram filed several complaints with the owner, but the owner claimed to be unable to locate the source of the smell. Then, in early June, the landlord said a leak in the building might have contributed to the smell.
On June 6, Ingram notified the owner and Davanzo that water was flowing through the district office. She also reported the flooding and the smell to Lisa Zaucha, Southwest Regional District Operations Coordinator for the House Republican Caucus.
Ingram also complained about the situation in Davanzo on June 26 during a road naming ceremony.
Then, on July 7, Zaucha emailed Ingram about the “‘mold situation'”. Deputy lead caucus counsel told him to buy mold testing.
Ingram bought them on July 12 and used them.
“After removing the vent covers, Ms. Ingram saw a significant amount of a mold-like substance, photos of which she took in order to document the problem,” the lawsuit said.
The tests were positive for aspergillum/penicillium and stachybotrys, according to the complaint.
That same day, according to the complaint, Ingram informed Davanzo of the test results.
He responded angrily, asking who gave him permission to perform the tests.
“He then claimed he was unaware of the issue and accused Ms Ingram of ‘opening a Pandora’s box’.”
The next day, according to the complaint, Davanzo “sent an email containing profanity” to several caucus members, berating Ingram for carrying out the tests.
“In the email, Rep Davanzo professed ignorance of any staff complaints about the health effects of mold, falsely stating, ‘Not once did my staff come to see me and said I (sic) felt sick working in this office, Hey, I don’t feel safe working here, not a word!” the lawsuit stated.
“Rep. Davanzo also expressed frustration that there would be no easy solution to the district office’s mold problem, making comments such as, ‘WTF is a mold expert? and ‘There is no no way to send them back there without fixing the problem, but how can we fix it,” Lisa and Nikki mentioned ripping the drywall off the walls! I’m livid and just pissed!”
He concluded the email, the lawsuit said, writing, “I no longer want Nikki Ingram to work for me, and quite frankly, I don’t care if Lisa Zaucha joins her. This is simply unacceptable! Now we’re going to have to move offices? Show me a building from the 50s that has no trace of mold, what’s the next step? Asbestos tile adhesive? It’s not going to end, we’ve opened a Pandora’s box! I won’t work with those two anymore, I’ll close my office first! ”
On July 19, according to the lawsuit, Ingram was called to a meeting and fired.
She was then told it was “due to a ‘clash of personalities’ and (they) wanted to go in a different direction,” according to the complaint.
However, according to the lawsuit, Ingram was given two other explanations for her termination, including that she was fired for violating rules regarding conduct/discipline and vacation leave policies.
“The HRC’s shifting justifications are pretexts, used to cover up the dismissal of a whistleblower,” the lawsuit said. “When Ms. Ingram complained about the odors in the district office and informed Rep. Davanzo of the positive mold tests, she launched into the whistleblower by reporting wrongdoing in good faith.”
Davanzo, 47, was re-elected on Tuesday to represent the 58th district. The district includes Monessen, East Huntingdon, Sewickley, South Huntingdon, North Belle Vernon, Rostraver, Scottdale, Smithton, Sutersville, West Newton and parts of Mt. Pleasant Township and North Huntingdon.
Paula Reed Ward is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Paula by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .