Philadelphia Weekly Senior Writer Tara Murtha Sues PW, Alleges Gender-Based Discrimination

Complaint references unequal pay, “frat-house atmosphere” and a co-worker’s “proud display of pornography.”

Philadelphia Weekly senior writer Tara Murtha filed suit in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against her employer yesterday. She’s alleging gender-based discrimination in pay in a “male-dominated, sexist and chauvinistic atmosphere.”

The complaint, referring to Murtha as “one of the most important and respected investigative journalists in the United States,” claims that a $2,000 cut in pay was not eventually reinstated based on her gender.

According to the suit, the cut from her $40,000 salary came in August 2009 when PW-owner Review Publishing began serious belt-tightening and was not replaced to its initial rate, even after the paper hired another writer at $40,000 a year, despite Murtha’s “comparatively superlative academic and professional credentials.”

In addition to stacking herself against her fellow writer (who the complaint alleges was dismissed for “inadequate performance”), Murtha includes a collection of anecdotes to support the purported sexism of PW. For example, she says one executive’s cubicle was decorated with “pictures of naked and/or scantily clad women,” and that despite her attempts, “no action was ever taken to address… [his] onanistic aspirations.”

“On another occasion,” according to the complaint, “Plaintiff complained about excessive noise by male co-workers while she was trying to conduct a telephone interview with a Pennsylvania state senator. Rather than correct the frat house atmosphere of the office, an office supervisor allegedly told Plaintiff to ‘go find an empty room and close the door.’”

Murtha’s complaint comes during continuing strain for alt-weeklies — in fact, these days the $40,000 salary both writers started at feels mildly staggering. According to the document, Adamma Ince, editor in chief of the paper from late 2008 through early 2012, attempted to return Murtha to her original $40,000 salary.

While the gender pay gap is no doubt real — American women are paid on average 77 cents for every dollar paid to men — the complaint feels a bit strange. It’s perhaps odd, for example, that Murtha uses a co-worker’s “proud displays of pornography” as evidence of sexism at a paper that has featured American Apparel’s oft-controversial ads of scantily clad women on its back page for years — a back page that immediately followed the alt-weekly back-section mainstay of ads for adult services. And although the complaint doesn’t specify just how loud the “frat house atmosphere” of PW was, a loud newsroom is not unusual. (My former City Paper colleague Monica Weymouth wrote some insightful commentary on this topic.)

Murtha is demanding $150,000 in damages. Murtha did not respond to a request for comment. Review Publisher CEO Clifton declined to comment and cited the company’s policy not to discuss ongoing litigation.

[Update] Here is the full complaint filed with the federal court:

Tara Murtha vs. Philadelphia Weekly