A federal jury in Houston on Wednesday cleared Schlumberger Technology Corp. of any wrongdoing in a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit brought by a female field engineer who alleged she had been subjected to a hostile work environment that forced her to resign.
The jury of five women and three men deliberated for about three hours before rejecting four specific claims brought by Jessica Cheatham. They found that she failed to prove Schlumberger discriminated against her based on her sex, failed to prove Schlumberger subjected her to a hostile work environment, failed to prove the company retaliated against her and failed to prove that its treatment of her forced her to leave the company.
Schlumberger, which has rebranded since this lawsuit was filed and now goes by SLB, issued a statement to The Lawbook Wednesday afternoon that the company was “pleased” with the verdict.
“The future of the energy industry and our own commitment to driving innovation are completely dependent on our ability to attract and retain the most diverse, inclusive and talented workforce,” the company’s statement reads. “That’s why the core of our culture is centered on maintaining and supporting a harassment- and discrimination-free environment where everyone feels safe to grow, learn and contribute.”
SLB’s statement went on to state that the company “will continue to improve and strengthen our processes, and we wholeheartedly support and stand behind anyone who has been the victim of sexual harassment.”
Cheatham’s attorney, Michael Palmer of Sanford Heisler Sharp issued a statement Wednesday thanking the jury.
“We continue to believe that Ms. Cheatham experienced gender discrimination, harassment, and retaliation during her time at Schlumberger, and that the company should have been held responsible for its failure to properly investigate and prevent these harms,” he said. “But we are grateful that after years of litigation, Ms. Cheatham 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, just like Ms. Cheatham did.”
Trial began with jury selection July 17.
Cheatham had alleged that in her two-and-a-half years with the oilfield services company she was subjected to pervasive sexual harassment on remote rig sites where she often was the only woman working, living and sleeping alongside 20 men.
One of the most egregious alleged examples of the harassment happened about four months after she was hired, in January 2018, when her supervisor Kenny Fusilier threated to “spank” her if she made a mistake inputting survey data into the computer before turning a nearby television to the Playboy channel.
The next day, Cheatham alleged, Fusilier repeatedly made references to the male and female parts of an oilfield tool he was teaching her to clean.
“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.”
Cheatham filed a complaint against Fusilier, which SLB substantiated. Fusilier was suspended for two weeks without pay as punishment.
During closing arguments Wednesday morning, Cheatham’s attorney, Andrew Macurdy of Sanford Heisler Sharp, reminded jurors of earlier testimony and evidence that SLB employees who handled Cheatham’s complaints called her “high maintenance” and said she “plays the female card.”
“This is what the human resources professionals at Schlumberger say about her behind her back,” he said.
Running jurors through a timeline of events, Macurdy argued the evidence supported a finding that Cheatham was subjected to a hostile work environment. Cheatham reported her experiences and sought help, he said.
“But there was none coming because something is broken at Schlumberger,” he said.
When she reported the incidents with Fusilier, a human resources professional told her “men just say those kinds of things,” Macurdy told the jury during closing arguments.
A month after the Fusilier incidents, Cheatham was working on a different rig where there was another woman on the crew. But Cheatham testified that the mentorship she was hoping to get from that woman never materialized after she told Cheatham that wearing shorts on the rig site meant she was “asking for it” and that she didn’t want any other men to get sexual harassment complaints.
Cheatham said she took the comment to mean the woman was aware of her earlier complaint and that she “supported the men.”
A point of contention at trial was whether Chevron, Schlumberger’s client, requested Cheatham be kicked off their rigs after violating driving protocol that resulted in a written warning, as the defense argued, or whether it was Schlumberger’s own retaliatory decision.
Macurdy argued that Cheatham’s supervisor, Dana Lasher, “didn’t want to deal with this woman who is speaking up” and used the driving incident “as a pretext” to blacklist Cheatham from rig sites. Jurors heard testimony that Cheatham had twice reported other instances of harassment to Lasher.
Once she was sent home from the Chevron rig, she never worked at a rig site for Schlumberger again. There were three assignments she accepted during the four-month period that preceded her January 2020 resignation, but each time the assignments were rescinded before she began the job. Macurdy said the recission of the rig assignments was “unprecedented” and called the human resources investigations into Cheatham’s complaints “completely deficient.”
“She was frozen out when she spoke up,” Macurdy said.
Cheatham testified that she resigned after she was encouraged by her superiors at Schlumberger to take a lower-paying job based in Alaska that she considered a demotion.
But Schlumberger wasn’t trying to push Cheatham out — they were actively trying to increase the number of female employees in the company — and only offered her the Alaska job as layoffs loomed amid a depressed oil market, argued Cecily Linne Kaffer of The Kullman Firm, who gave closing arguments for Schlumberger.
“Schlumberger did not want the plaintiff to leave,” she said. “We didn’t want her to quit. That was her choice.”
Attacking the $12 million in damages Macurdy requested during closing arguments, Kaffer said Cheatham was trying to have it both ways: arguing on one hand that the two-week unpaid suspension handed down to Fusilier, which cost him between $10,000 and $15,000, was a “vacation” and tantamount to no disciplinary action while on the other hand telling the jury to asses a $10 million punitive financial penalty on Schlumberger.
Kaffer reminded jurors that human resources “believed” Cheatham and substantiated her complaint against Fusilier but criticized Cheatham for including in her lawsuit some allegations of sexual harassment that she never brought to HR.
“Why wait five years to tell a jury?” Kaffer asked. “Why not report it at the time?”
She concluded by telling jurors she was going to address the “elephant in the room” and raised doubts about the veracity of the medical examination that led to Cheatham being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
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 and were seeking “not less than” $100 million in damages, but on Sept. 15, 2022, they changed course and informed the court they “do not intend to move for class certification.”
Cheatham is also represented by Russell K. 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 Setara Ozan-Foster, Benjamin Landau-Beispiel, Benjamin P. Kahn, 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.