In a recent decision, the Court of Appeals for the Second Appellate District upheld a $150,000 sexual harassment verdict and a $680,000 attorneys’ fee award against one of the Countries’ largest rigging and drilling company, Nabors.  Given the nature of the allegations and the size of the award against the drilling tycoon, expect to see more of these types of cases in the near future.

Max Taylor, the Plaintiff in Taylor v. Nabors Drilling USA, LP (2014) 222 Cal. App. 4th 1228, began his employment as a “floor hand” on a drilling rig for Nabors in 2008.  Starting at an entry-level position, Taylor was subject to daily verbal abuse by his supervisor and by senior employees.  Several times a day they called him, among other things, “queer,” “fagot,” and “homo,” and posted pictures of him around the restroom with derogatory sexual comments.  Taylor’s supervisor and coworkers knew that Taylor was not a homosexual, knew that Taylor had a girlfriend, and their spouses’ and Taylor’s girlfriend would even go shopping together.  In addition to verbally abusing Taylor, his coworkers would also physically assault him by, among other things, spanking his buttocks.  According to Taylor’s girlfriend, Taylor would come home after work emotionally distressed.

Approximately one-and-a-half-years after his employment with Nabors began, Taylor complained to human resources about the harassment.  In response, Nabors removed Taylor’s supervisor from Taylor’s rig and the other employees stopped harassing him.  After a thorough investigation Nabors terminated the supervisor.  Three months later, however, Nabors terminated Taylor citing workplace absences, tardiness, and a confrontation with one of his new supervisors.  Three months later, Taylor filed suit alleging hostile work environment, failure to prevent sexual harassment, unlawful retaliation, and wrongful termination.  A jury awarded him $160,000 in damages based on his hostile work environment claim alone.

On appeal, the court upheld the jury award noting that “sex was used a as a weapon to create a hostile work environment” for Taylor.  The court further noted that Taylor’s seniors “’employed attacks on (Taylor’s) identity as a heterosexual male as a tool of harassment.’” Nabors argued that the rig crew’s comments were not sexually motivated as they all knew Taylor was not a homosexual.  In response, the court cited the newly amended Labor Code section 12940(j)(4)(C), which became operative on January 1, 2014, and which specifically provides that “sexual harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire.”  As such, the court held that “a heterosexual male is subjected to harassment because of sex under the FEHA when attacks on his heterosexual identity are used as a tool of harassment in the workplace, irrespective of whether the attacks are motivated by sexual desire or interest.”  The court upheld $150,000 of the $160,000 award for non-economic damages to Taylor as well as the entire $680,520 attorney fees award.

While the facts of this case may seem shocking to some, to others who work in the oil fields this might seem like routine hazing.  Therein lays the problem.  In an industry where new employees are commonly known as “worms,” the historic hazing rituals in these small crews working at remote locations is difficult to break.  Given the amount of damages awarded, and given that this is the first case to discuss the newly-revised Labor Code section 12940(j)(4)(C), we expect to see an increase in sexual harassment cases filed against companies performing oil field services such as drilling, cementing, fracking, and treatment where small crews are the norm.  Such companies would be well advised to not only ensure that they are promoting trustworthy mature individuals to such crews, but regularly training them in sexual harassment, and mandating that every crew’s binder includes, at the very least, examples of what types of conduct is not permissible.