What is the nature of the sexual harassment case at the Shell Oil refinery in California?

As most of us are aware, a culture of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment has been pervasive in a great many small businesses, corporations, educational institutions and even government agencies and hospitals for most of the history of the United States. It is only during the last few decades that serious steps have been taken to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace and we still have a long way to go. It should be noted that crimes of sexual harassment and discrimination can be committed against people of all genders, gender identifications, and sexual orientations.

Recently, one of the largest companies in the world, Shell Oil, has been sued by a former employee of its Martinez refinery for “sex-based harassment, sex discrimination, (and) failure to take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and harassment.” This quoted accusation comes directly from a copy of the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The Specifics of the Case

In her complaint, the plaintiff, Ciara Newton, reports that she started working as a refinery process operator at Shell in January 2016. Her lawsuit describes a hostile, male-dominated work setting in which her coworkers frequently made derogatory comments about women. When Newton complained about the work environment, she states that her supervisors not only dismissed her complaints, but themselves expressed disapproval of having women in the workplace.

Newton alleges that the gender-based discrimination and harassment by both coworkers and supervisors was continual. In one particularly distasteful example, she found a sticker on her desk that said, “If your (vagina) hurts, just stay home.” In another incident, a supervisor remarked that “women do not last long in his department.” Although Newton reported the harassment to the company’s human resources department, the workplace atmosphere remained unchanged, an all too common occurrence according to Newton’s lawyer, Sonya Smallets.

Further Wrongdoing by Shell Employees Is Alleged

In addition to her lawsuit claiming harassment and determination, Newton is also suing for wrongful termination. She alleges that Shell retaliated not only for her complaints of discrimination, but for her attempt to appropriately contain and document a sulfuric acid spill that took place at the refinery. As she attempted to record the details of the spill, as well as to tape off the surrounding area for everyone’s protection, she was told by a supervisor to discontinue her efforts because she was going to get him and other employees “in trouble” since they had not yet reported the incident.

In this second lawsuit, Newton contends that she was wrongfully terminated in September 2016, less than a year after she began working in the refinery. Shell reported that she was being fired for her “unsatisfactory performance during the probationary period” even though her termination took place only 6 days after she received a positive progress report from her supervisor, encouraging her to continue in her present job.

As so often happens when large companies are sued for sexual harassment and discrimination, Shell Oil’s spokesperson would not comment on the pending litigation, simply falling back on the default cliché: “Shell is committed to a workplace free of harassment and discrimination.”