Editor’s Note: This story includes language that some may find offensive.
A federal jury in Houston will determine whether a female field engineer for Schlumberger Technology Corporation was the victim of sexual harassment and discrimination that forced her to resign or whether, as the oilfield services giant argues, she was the victim of both a down oil market and poor choices that caused her to move jobs.
Testimony began Tuesday morning in the lawsuit brought by Jessica Cheatham, who holds degrees in chemical engineering and biochemistry and considered working for Schlumberger her “dream job,” her attorney, Andrew Macurdy of Sanford Heisler Sharp, told the jury during opening statements. He told jurors they can expect to hear evidence from Schlumberger that Cheatham was a less-than-perfect employee — reprimanded for driving too fast on a rig site, was sometimes slow to respond to messages and took leave to care for her grandmother.
“But you don’t need to be perfect to be protected by the laws against retaliation,” he said.
Painting a picture of the alleged pervasive sexual harassment women employees faced on remote rig sites — where they often were the only female on their crews and were required to share sleeping quarters with male coworkers — Macurdy recounted for the jury an incident that Cheatham reported in January 2018 when her supervisor was teaching her how to input survey information into the computer.
“If you mess up this survey, I’m going to bend you over my knee and spank you,” Kenny Fusilier is alleged to have told Cheatham. “And you’ll like it.”
Soon after that comment, with Cheatham still at the computer, Fusilier allegedly laid on a nearby couch and turned the television to the Playboy channel. The following day, while teaching Cheatham to clean a tool used in the oilfield, he allegedly made repeated references to the male and female parts of the instrument.
“There’s a male end with the pin, and if you lift the skirt up there’s a pussy, do you see the pussy?” he allegedly said. “Now to clean the pussy, you need to use this type of brush and cleaner. You then begin to thrust in and out, repeatedly. You thrust up and down going all the way around, keep going deeper while thrusting up and down, and as you go deeper and deeper keep thrusting the pin up and down. … you know all about this.”
In a copy of her complaint to human resources shown to the jury, Cheatham wrote that she was “humiliated, embarrassed and ashamed.”
Macurdy told the jury Fusilier was reprimanded with only a warning letter, but Schlumberger’s attorney said he was also suspended without pay for two weeks after the complaint was substantiated following an investigation.
The jury heard that Cheatham was warned by a female coworker that wearing shorts on the rig site was “asking for” harassment and that other male colleagues told her she was sleeping around, had gotten her two promotions in exchange for sexual favors and wasn’t fit for the job.
Cheatham made a second report.
“Nothing came from her formal complaint except Schlumberger’s retaliation against her,” Macurdy said.
She was effectively forced to resign, Macurdy said, after she stopped receiving rig assignments and was then encouraged in November 2019 to take a job that paid less and required a move to Alaska.
The jury was shown the resignation letter Cheatham sent Dec. 28, 2019, where she praised Schlumberger as “such an amazing company” and wrote that she had grown professionally, learned from her colleagues and was thankful for the opportunity she had but would be moving on to a new company.
“How did we get from this, to here?” asked Setara Ozan-Foster of The Kullman Firm, who gave opening statements for Schlumberger. “I can tell you, this case is not about discrimination. It’s about … choices and consequences.”
Ozan-Foster ran the jury of five women and three men through a timeline of events, noting that Cheatham only made two written, formal complaints about sexual harassment during her two-and-a-half-year tenure with the company and that each one was filed shortly after she had driving incidents in company-owned vehicles.
“Event, and report,” Ozan-Foster said. “Not the other way around.”
While the oil and gas industry is male dominated, Ozan-Foster told the jury that it “is not synonymous with the good old boys club” culture opposing counsel alluded to during opening statements.
Schlumberger is an industry leader in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and prides itself on promoting women like Cheatham who begin their careers as field engineers to be leaders in the company, Ozan-Foster said, showing the jury photos of two female companywide leaders.
Some of what Cheatham has characterized as evidence of discrimination, such as her lack of rig assignments, Ozan-Foster told the jury, was really just evidence of a down oil market in 2019 that meant many field engineers like Cheatham weren’t being deployed to rig sites because the cost to pull the oil out of the ground exceeded what it could be sold for.
And the offer from the company for a job in Alaska with lower pay that Cheatham referred to as a “demotion” was also mischaracterized, Ozan-Foster said. When the company began laying off employees, that’s when the Alaska offer came, she said.
“It was not a demotion and it was not retaliation,” she said. “They wanted to keep her. … she resigned. That’s not discrimination.”
When the lawsuit was filed in June 2020, Sara Saidman was the only plaintiff. An amended complaint filed in September 2020 added Cheatham.
On Nov. 29, Saidman filed an unopposed motion to dismiss herself from the suit. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt signed off on the request Dec. 1.
Court documents indicate the plaintiffs initially planned to pursue the lawsuit as a class action, but on Sept. 15, 2022, they changed course and informed the court they “do not intend to move for class certification.”
Macurdy told the jury they would be tasked with not only deciding whether Cheatham was the victim of harassment and retaliation but also what amount of damages she is owed for the alleged conduct that he said derailed her career and “destroyed her self-worth and confidence.”
He did not suggest a dollar amount to jurors Tuesday morning, but in court documents Cheatham has indicated she is seeking “not less than” $100 million.
The trial, which began Monday with jury selection, is expected to last about 10 days.
Cheatham is also represented by Michael D. Palmer, Russell L. Kornblith, David H. Tracey, Nicole E. Wiitala, Carolin E. Guentert and Alok K. Nadig of Sanford Heisler Sharp, Todd Slobin of Shellist Lazarz Slobin and Melinda Arbuckle of Wage and Hour Firm.
Schlumberger is also represented by Benjamin Landau-Beispiel, Benjamin P. Kahn, Cecily Kaffer, Samuel Zurik III and MaryJo J. Roberts of The Kullman Firm and Samantha Shear of Jones Walker.
The case number is 4:20-cv-02193.