District Court in Georgia Dismisses Fire Medic’s Claim of Discrimination Related to Comments at Work, an Involuntary Transfer, and Alleged Constructive Discharge

By: Loyd Willaford and Sarah Burke

In Cheatham v. DeKalb County, a federal district court granted summary judgment on a female fire medic’s claims that she had been discriminated against because men in her unit did not use the toilet properly and the station captain made a comment that “the only reason why a woman is in the fire service is to cook and do clerical work.” The court ruled that the fire medic had not suffered a materially adverse employment action because she was transferred and her transfer was a lateral one and she could not meet the high burden of establishing she was constructively discharged when she quit and got a better paying job.

Kiesha Cheatham was an African-American female who was employed as a Fire Medic with Dekalb County Fire Rescue. In October, 2012, Cheatham was eating at the fire station with her partner. During the meal, Cheatham’s partner began experiencing an allergic reaction after accidentally eating onions. Cheatham did not provide her partner any assistance and other EMT’s had to rush into the room to administer epinephrine to him. Two weeks later, Cheatham was transferred out of the unit to a different station. At her new fire station, Cheatham alleged that she was subjected to hostile treatment. Specifically, Cheatham said on more than one occasion the women’s restroom was used by male firefighter’s who then left the toilet unflushed with poop. Further, the station’s captain told Cheatham that the “only reason why a woman is in the fire service is to cook and do clerical work.” Cheatham was threatened with a suspension by the Fire Chief after filing multiple internal grievances.

On March 14, 2013, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that she was subjected to retaliation and discrimination on the basis of her sex and race. On August 21, 2013, Cheatham resigned from her employment with DCFR and on June 16, 2014, she filed her complaint in District Court.  The Court made the following comments in dismissing her case:

The Eleventh Circuit has held that an adverse employment action is one that impacts the terms, conditions, or privileges of the employee’s job in a real and demonstrable way. The employee’s subjective view of the significance and adversity of the employer’s action is not controlling; the employment action must be materially adverse as viewed by a reasonable person in the circumstances. The Magistrate found that there was no evidence that Cheatham was demoted when she was transferred to Fire Station 17. Rather, the transfer constituted a lateral transfer that did not materially alter her employment. Because a purely lateral transfer cannot rise to the level of a materially adverse employment action the district court affirmed the Magistrate’s granting of summary judgment on this claim.

Further, the Court ruled that Cheatham had not established a prima facie case of hostile work environment because she could not show that the alleged harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of her employment. The Magistrate Judge found, even assuming the alleged suspension threat and defecation incidents were based on her gender, that the harassment was not pervasive. Even though the Magistrate found the comment by the Chief was because of Cheatham’s sex, the Magistrate believed this singular comment was not severe enough to establish pervasiveness. The district court agreed and upheld summary judgment on the hostile work environment claim.

The Magistrate also found that Cheatham had not suffered any retaliation for filing her claims. Cheatham could not demonstrate that she was constructively discharged because she could not show a causal connection between her statutorily protected activity and the materially adverse actions or that her treatment was so poor she had no choice but to resign. In light of this, the district court also affirmed the Magistrate’s finding that the County was entitled to summary judgment on this claim.

This case illustrates a number of common issues in employment law cases.  First, the law requires an adverse employment action to have legal claim.  Generally, this is going to mean loss of money, but it can also mean transfer to a less desirable job or assignment to less desirable job duties.  Here, the plaintiff’s transfer was lateral and there was no evidence that it was a less desirable job. Thus, the court ruled that the transfer was not adverse. 

The second major issue in this case was that the standard of proof to show a constructive discharge, as opposed to a voluntary quit, is that no reasonable person would stay at the job.  The court ruled that no reasonable person would believe that `that the work environment here was bad enough to justify quitting.  It did not help the plaintiff that she immediately got a much better paying job: the inference being that she had the job lined up before quitting. 

Finally, the “stray remarks” doctrine was in play here.  This doctrine states that discriminatory remarks have to be pervasive to show discrimination.  The one comment about women only being there to cook and clean was not enough to show pervasive sex discrimination.

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