Offshore Drilling Corporation Wins Sexual Harassment Case

Leah Shepherd By Leah Shepherd August 15, 2023

​A jury in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas recently cleared SLB, a multinational oilfield services firm, of sexual harassment and retaliation charges.

A class-action lawsuit filed in June 2020 brought claims of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment and retaliation against the Houston-based company, formerly called Schlumberger Technology Corp. The jury found SLB not liable after the company showed it maintained anti-discrimination and nonretaliation policies and trained workers on those policies, according to SLB.

The class action said female employees who worked on oil rigs were groped, sexually harassed, leered at and called misogynistic slurs by their co-workers. About 95 percent of the company's employees are male, according to court documents.

One named plaintiff, who worked as a field engineer, alleged that male colleagues with whom she shared living quarters on oil rigs encouraged other men to break into her bedroom while she was sleeping and ignore her if she resisted their sexual advances. Another named plaintiff, also a field engineer, alleged that her male colleagues played pornography at the worksite, threatened to spank her, and used inappropriate and crude sexual language when teaching her how to use a certain tool. She also claimed her male co-workers requested that she be replaced by a man, refused to train her and told her she would not be successful as a field employee.

Both named plaintiffs said their complaints to HR were discounted or ignored entirely. The first plaintiff said SLB retaliated against her by performing a drug and alcohol test on her hours after she complained of discrimination and harassment. In addition, she said a manager disclosed confidential information regarding her HR investigation and her suspension status to one of her colleagues. The company later fired her.

The second plaintiff alleged SLB retaliated against her and wrongfully terminated her after it refused to staff her on any oil rig unless she accepted a significant demotion and took a position in Alaska.

SLB said it made good-faith efforts to prevent harassment and discrimination and maintained a process for employees to voice concerns about those issues. "Plaintiffs unreasonably failed to timely utilize this complaint procedure to complain about alleged harassment, discrimination, or retaliation, and [SLB] neither knew nor had any reason to know of the alleged harassment, discrimination, or retaliation until plaintiffs' untimely complaint," SLB argued in court documents.

SLB sought to dismiss the class action, arguing that the claims didn't have enough commonality in the alleged conduct, severity, pervasiveness, impact, reporting, knowledge on the part of managers, and company response. It argued that the plaintiffs did not submit the collective allegations to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in a timely fashion and did not satisfy the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit. SLB also argued that the second plaintiff did not receive an EEOC right to sue and could not piggyback on the first plaintiff's claims.

Before the trial, SLB settled with the first named plaintiff, as reported by Bloomberg. As a result, the case was no longer a class action. The jury sided with the company for the remaining claims brought by the second named plaintiff.

"The company should have been held responsible for its failure to properly investigate and prevent these harms. But we are grateful that after years of litigation, [the second plaintiff] had the opportunity to tell her story. We hope that despite this verdict, other women who experience discrimination at work will continue to bravely come forward," said Michael Palmer, an attorney with Sanford Heisler Sharp in New York City, who represented the second plaintiff.

Josh Byerly, a spokesman for SLB, said, "The specific claims the [second plaintiff raised were thoroughly investigated, and SLB took prompt and effective remedial action in accordance with its policies and procedures for any improper conduct reported. There was no retaliation, discrimination or hostile work environment created at any time, as the jury affirmed."

What Should Employers Do?

Under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, it's illegal to harass a job applicant or employee because of their sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or pregnancy status. Many states also have laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace. Harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

"Many employees mistakenly believe that sexual harassment only takes place with physical contact or inappropriate comments. Sexual harassment can take many forms, including nonverbal body language and actions, conversations in which a victim overhears something inappropriate, jokes, office décor, and other forms," said Brandon Saxon, an attorney with Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani in San Diego. "There is a misconception that sexual harassment must take place over a long period of time before it becomes actionable. Even a single instance of inappropriate conduct [can be] enough to warrant an actionable claim."

The most effective ways to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace are "to have clear policies and procedures in place, which are communicated effectively to employees and managers alike. Additionally, ensuring comprehensive training and reminders regarding those policies is an important tool in preventing harassment," Saxon said. "In the event issues arise, encouraging prompt reporting and having uniform procedures for reporting, investigating, and holding both employees and management responsible for their behavior provides a robust and comprehensive approach to preventing these types of claims."

Jurate Schwartz, an attorney with Proskauer in Boca Raton, Fla., said, "To be effective, the policy needs to be well-publicized, easily accessible and acknowledged by employees." Anti-harassment training should provide examples of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and communicate that inappropriate conduct may cost an employee their job and that an employee can be sued individually for sexual harassment-related torts, such as assault and battery, she added.

Meanwhile, to prevent retaliation against workers who voice concerns about harassment, "having the policies in place is just the first step, and ensuring that the policies are followed via management and HR oversight is also critical," Saxon said. Companies should maintain multiple channels for reporting claims of harassment or retaliation, including a hotline, anonymous reporting and direct communication to a supervisor or HR, he said.

Employers should also remind employees that retaliation "is prohibited and can lead to termination, regardless of the outcome of the underlying claim," said Jon Klinghoffer, an attorney with Goldberg Kohn in Chicago.

Schwart added that ultimately, "[t]he employer's obligation is to exercise reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any harassing behavior."

Even if the alleged conduct may not be illegal under federal or state law, "nonetheless it may violate an organization's anti-harassment policy. When investigating a complaint of harassment, an HR investigation should focus on whether the alleged conduct violates the organization's policy," Klinghoffer said.



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