Medic’s Treatment Does Not Rise To Level Of Sex-Based Harassment

Kiesha Cheatham was hired as a DeKalb County Fire Rescue Fire Medic in 2008. On October 16, 2012, Cheatham was eating dinner at a fire station with Christopher Roberts, her co-worker, when she noticed Roberts experiencing an allergic reaction to onions in their dinner. Captain Matthew Robinson and Captain James Damico were also present during the incident. Captain Robinson and EMT Michael Gales –who entered the room while Roberts was having the allergic incident – administered epinephrine to Robinson to counteract the allergic reaction.

Following the incident, the County’s Internal Affairs Unit and the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office began an investigation to determine whether someone willfully placed onions in Roberts’ meal knowing that he was allergic to onions, and whether proper protocols were followed concerning the administration of the epinephrine. As part of the investigation, Cheatham provided written statements about the incident. The investigation concluded that Captain Damico had willfully placed onions in Roberts’ dinner and that various other employees had violated protocols following the incident.

As to Cheatham, the investigation concluded that Captain Robinson had instructed Cheatham to label the epinephrine as damaged (rather than that it had been used on Roberts) and that Cheatham had originally done so. However, Cheatham later corrected this misrepresentation and created a patient care report that documented the epinephrine as having been used on Roberts.

Two weeks later, Cheatham was transferred from Fire Station 1 to Fire Station 17. She also received two disciplinary letters – one for sick leave abuse and the other for neglect of duty.

Cheatham sued, contending that she experienced sex-based harassment and discrimination after being transferred to Fire Station 17. On more than one occasion, two male firefighters defecated in the women’s restroom and did not flush the toilet. Further, Station 17’s Captain Mitchell commented “the only reason why a woman is in the fire service is to cook and do clerical work” and stated that he “didn’t want a woman riding on his fire truck.” Cheatham was also denied requests for leave because other male medics had already requested the time off, although she concedes that, at other times, her requests were granted.

A federal court of appeals determined that Cheatham was not the victim a hostile work environment or sex-based harassment. The Court noted that to establish a hostile work environment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Cheatham was required show that the workplace was permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult, that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment. The Court observed that the requirement that the harassment be “severe or pervasive” contains an objective and subjective element. The behavior must result in an environment “that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive,” and one which the victim “subjectively perceives to be abusive.”

The Court concluded that Cheatham’s alleged treatment did not rise to these levels: “Other than Captain Mitchell’s comments, there is no evidence that any of these behaviors were based on Cheatham’s female status. Indeed, Cheatham herself believed that much of the hostility she faced was because she had cooperated with the investigation of the onion incident and created a patient-care report for the medication that was used on Roberts, which report contradicted a supervisor’s explanation. Hostile treatment based on Cheatham’s cooperation in the investigation does not provide evidence that these incidents were motivated by Cheatham’s sex.

“Further, even if Cheatham had presented evidence that this allegedly negative treatment was motivated by her sex, the treatment was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to support a hostile work environment claim. Cheatham did not testify how often her co-workers left feces in the female restroom toilets, and could only say that Captain Mitchell made the derogatory statements numerous times. Such evidence does not establish a pattern of frequent occurrences, or a workplace permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that effectively altered the conditions of the Cheatham’s employment.”

Cheatham v. DeKalb County, Georgia, 2017 WL 1046087 (11th Cir. 2017).