Firefighter Loses Sexual Harassment Lawsuit

Tonya Godsey-Marshall was an Assistant Fire Chief with the Village of Phillipsburg, Ohio. Godsey-Marshall filed a lawsuit against the Village, alleging in part that she was the victim of sexual harassment.

Godsey-Marshall pointed to several incidents occurring in the Fire Department during 2008. For several days, one of the firefighters had posted over his gear-stall a sign that said “GIGANTIC MEAT.” Also, someone placed a sign on a broom that said “Assistant Chief’s Vehicle.” Someone also ran up the flagpole men’s boxer shorts, which flew for about a week.

The occurrence upon which Godsey-Marshall most focused deals with the women’s restroom. For a period of time, because of a leak in the wall of the men’s restroom, everyone used the women’s restroom. Some of the men who used the restroom left it filthy, “urinating on the seat and floor,” and refused to clean up after themselves. Eventually, several people complained to the Village Council and the Council allowed them to install a lock on the women’s restroom, giving only the women keys. When the Chief took over, however, he removed the lock and allowed the men to use it again. The offending behavior began again.

A court found that these allegations, even if true, could not amount to sexual harassment. To begin with, the Court noted that to be the basis for a lawsuit, harassment “must involve differential treatment of male and female employees. A plaintiff must present evidence of unequal treatment, treatment that would not have occurred but for the plaintiff’s sex, treatment that was directed at the plaintiff because of his or her sex.”

The Court held that Godsey-Marshall’s claim failed this test: “Every single example of harassment recounted by Godsey-Marshall was suffered by all Fire Department employees, male and female. Both men and women could see the ‘gigantic meat’ sign, both men and women could see the boxer shorts strung up on the flagpole, and both men and women used the filthy restroom. Members of both sexes then were equally harassed. There’s no evidence of differential treatment, no evidence that the harassment was directed at Godsey-Marshall (or any other female employees) because she is a woman, and no evidence that the harassment would not have occurred but for the fact that Godsey-Marshall is a woman.”

The Court found another flaw with the lawsuit. The Court observed that sexual harassment “must be severe and pervasive” in order to provide the basis for a lawsuit. In the Court’s eyes, there was no evidence “that the harassment was severe or pervasive. Considering the totality of the circumstances, the harassment that Godsey-Marshall recounts was infrequent, relatively moderate, not physically threatening or humiliating, and there is no evidence that it interfered with, let alone unreasonably interfered with, her work performance.”

Godsey-Marshall v. Phillipsburg, 2010 WL 2017909 (Ohio App. 2 Dist. 2010).

This article appears in the August 2010 issue