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"It is often said that a lawyer’s main job is to be a zealous advocate for his or her client, which brings to mind images of profound courtroom arguments.  My experience has taught me that zealous advocacy means different things depending on the case and, most importantly, the client.  In representing victims of workplace sexual harassment, I feel it is important to first and foremost be a confidential resource, by listening and providing informed guidance.  To be an effective advocate for you—whether in the courtroom, mediation, or an administrative setting—we must first understand your unique story." 

The world’s third largest airline has been accused of failing to protect a female flight attendant from years of harassment by a male pilot. The Washington Post reports that the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission filed a lawsuit in federal court in Texas last week, alleging that the airline refused to take action against a pilot who posted compromising photos of the attendant online, even after she complained to her superiors and the pilot was arrested for stalking (here is a PDF of the Complaint). The EEOC issued a statement on the lawsuit.

Consensual Relationship, Photos, and an Injunction

The Post reports that the woman, who is not identified in the complaint, began a consensual relationship with United pilot Mark Uhlenbrock in 2002, and allowed him to take pictures and record video of her in provocative poses.  She ended the relationship in 2006 when she discovered that Uhlenbrock had posted the pictures on a website for swingers without her knowledge and refused to stop.  The harassment, however, was just beginning.  Over the next decade, Uhlenbrock continued to post the pictures and videos on the internet, including partially nude images of the woman in her uniform, and listing her name, occupation, and home airport.  The Post reports that she filed at least three lawsuits against Uhlenbrock, obtaining a $100,000 damages award and a permanent injunction barring Uhlenbrock from posting the images.  The FBI became involved when he continued to post the images, ultimately arresting Uhlenbrock in 2015 for stalking. He later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison.

No Action from United Airlines

The EEOC’s complaint focuses on United’s response, or lack thereof.  According to the suit, the woman reported the harassment to United’s human resources department and general counsel on several occasions, but the company refused to take action.  Amazingly, the airline allegedly told the woman the Uhlenbrock’s conduct did not constitute workplace sexual harassment and did not warrant intervention or action by the company.  The EEOC alleges that this to prevent and correct Uhlenbrock’s conduct violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, which includes sexual harassment.  The complaint notes that Uhlenbrock had supervisory authority over flight attendants, and that the airline had rules of conduct, disciplinary mechanisms, applicable policies and procedures, and the authority to prevent and correct Uhlenbrock’s harassment.  Perhaps most disturbingly, United allegedly granted Uhlenbrock long-term disability following his arrest, and allowed him to retire with full benefits following his guilty plea.

The complaint, which was filed after the EEOC attempted to reach a voluntary settlement through its conciliation process, asks the court to order United to pay compensatory and punitive damages to the flight attendant, and permanently enjoin the airline from engaging in further gender-discriminatory practices.  The EEOC also asks the court to order the company to create and carry out policies and practices that eliminate and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

In the EEOC statement, Supervisory Trial Attorney Eduardo Juarez notes that “United was aware of the intimate details of how its pilot was harassing its flight attendant, but took no responsibility to put a stop to it. As a result, over a period of many years, the flight attendant had to work every day in fear of humiliation if a co-worker or customer recognized her from the pilot’s postings. This is unacceptable, and the EEOC is here to fight such misconduct.” According to the Post’s report, a United spokesman disputed the EEOC’s allegations, and claimed that “United does not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace and will vigorously defend itself against this case.”

We will continue to follow this story as it develops.

A new lawsuit involving non-lawyer employees at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, reiterates that there is no area of society immune from sexual harassment issues, and that a company’s response to allegations against an employee deserves as much scrutiny as the underlying behavior. Above The Law and the ABA Journal Blog outline the allegations leveled by Kruanli Parekh, a Business Development Specialist, against Alton Delane, the Managing Director of Dentons’ Venture Technology Group.  Law.com and Bloomberg’s Big Law Business Blog also have reports.

Allegations of Inappropriate Touching and Vulgar Language

Parekh’s Complaint alleges that Delane treated her as a sex object, using vulgar language, trying to draw her in to sexual conversations during late night calls, and touching her legs and buttocks without her consent. The Complaint even offers a bullet-point list of explicit allegations against Delane, while noting that he generates significant business for Dentons and is treated as a partner. Not surprisingly, alcohol is alleged to have played a part in Delane’s alleged-behavior.

Dentons, which just a few months ago dealt with allegations made against a partner while at a firm that merged with Dentons, issued a statement explaining that it placed Delane on administrative leave upon first learning of the allegations, and that it will take appropriate action upon conclusion of an internal investigation.  Parekh’s Complaint, however, alleges that Dentons initial response was far from robust. She claims that when she complained to her supervisor, she was told not to discuss the matter with anyone, which she characterizes as the firm’s effort to silence her and discourage her from seeking outside counsel. Parekh attributes the response—and the environment which enabled Delane’s alleged behavior—to a lack of female representation among the firm’s leadership. There are just three women on Dentons’ 34-member global board, and two on its 20-member global management team. For its part, the firm noted in its statement that five women serve on its 16-member U.S. board.

Whether Dentons responded appropriately or not will be borne out as the case progresses. Above The Law notes that Parekh’s allegation that she was told,

do not discuss this with anyone else inside or outside the firm,”

could be part of a prudent direction if given in the context of a request to wait until the firm concluded its investigation. Parekh’s lawyer told Bloomberg that the firm knew about the allegations for months, and only took action once Parekh sought outside counsel.  What is clear, however, is that even though companies can’t control for every employee’s behavior, they can control their response.  And society is paying attention.

The #MeToo moment is making it harder for businesses to allow bad actors to quietly move on to other opportunities, as demonstrated by the resignation of Mayer Brown capital market’s partner James R. Tanenbaum. Above the Law and The American Lawyer report that Tanenbaum resigned in March when it surfaced that he was fired from Morrison & Foerster’s New York office after an internal investigation substantiated allegations of sexual harassment.

Real Consequences After #MeToo

Tanenbaum was reportedly first accused of harassment over two years ago, and was reprimanded by the firm. When the allegations resurfaced last year, Morrison & Foerster brought in an outside firm to conduct an investigation into Tanenbaum’s behavior. Above the Law reports Tanenbaum was asked to leave the same day the outside report was finished, and left the firm in December 2017. In less than two months he had found work with Mayer Brown, reportedly as part of the firm’s luring of a large team from M&F.

It is not clear what led Tanenbaum to resign less than a month later. Mayer Brown issued a statement that it had accepted his resignation after “assertions that [he] may have engaged in inappropriate conduct at his former firm.” The firm did not respond to Above the Law’s request about whether they had any knowledge of the allegations surrounding Tanenbaum during the hiring process. M&F also declined comment.

While Tanenbaum’s story is nowhere near as public as those we have seen in the entertainment industry, it shows that even businesses as private as law firms are changing the way they handle allegations of workplace sexual harassment. Just two years ago he was slapped on the wrist, but this time around the firm investigated and acted. Above the Law spoke with a partner at M&F, who said the #MeToo movement inspired her to come forward, and that she was proud of the way the firm conducted a fair investigation into the claims. It is concerning that Tanenbaum was able to shuffle to another firm without—at least initially—any serious question, however in today’s environment he ultimately was not allowed to go away quietly.

The chair and managing partner of the world’s second-highest grossing law firm has resigned after admitting to exchanging sexually-explicit text messages with a woman whom he’d never met. Bill Voge, who became chair of Latham & Watkins in 2015 after two prior stints on the firm’s executive committee, first contacted the woman in September 2017 on behalf of the New Canaan Society, a Christian men’s group, and offered to help her engage in a “Christian reconciliation” with a fellow member. The relationship escalated to sexting in November, and while it was initially consensual, the woman said Voge crossed the line when he asked her to come to his hotel room.

A powerful man taking advantage of his position

Law360, which had been investigating the allegations against Voge, and was interviewing his attorney when news of his resignation broke, reports that the woman began telling her story after Voge’s request to meet in person. In emails, texts, and phone calls to Voge’s attorney, assistant, law partners, and even his wife, the woman described how she felt Voge had taken advantage of his position and knowledge of her situation, and shared some of the explicit messages. She reportedly contacted attorneys at Kirkland & Ellis, seeking counsel who would not be intimidated by Voge; one Kirkland attorney reached by Law360 declined comment. The American Lawyer and ABA Journal also have reports.

Voge has fought back, disputing the woman’s account of their relationship, and alleging she has engaged in a smear campaign to publicly humiliate him. His attorney sent a cease and desist letter to the woman in November characterizing her actions as harassment, and described her to Law360 as a “cyberstalker.” However, he declined to go into more detail.

Unprofessional conduct or harassment?

In a statement, Latham said that Voge resigned after voluntarily disclosing his actions to the firm’s executive committee. After noting that Voge’s conduct did not involve the firm, any of its clients or its personnel, the statement acknowledges that “Mr. Voge engaged in subsequent conduct relating to this matter that, while not unlawful, the executive committee concluded was not benefitting the leader of the firm.” According to Law360, the “subsequent conduct” including contacting the woman’s husband, and at least one family friend. While some of the messages reviewed by Law360 are apologetic, others are threatening, with Voge claiming the woman should be in jail, and that she should be made an example of to “help the next victim.”

Voge issued a statement saying he was stepping down “with great sorrow.” He characterized the situation as a “personal mistake,” and acknowledged that his conduct “falls well below the personal and professional standards” he has sought to uphold.

As stories like Voge’s continue to make headlines, we see time and again the importance of harassment victims telling their stories. One of the most vital resources for victims in this sense is their attorney. We can provide confidential counsel to help victims understand their rights, and will not be intimidated by the harasser’s power or status. If you are the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, do not hesitate to contact an attorney.

It has been over a month since Sports Illustrated broke the story of the history of sexual harassment within the Dallas Mavericks’ organization. Since then, the team has hired outside counsel to investigate its culture, and brought in a new CEO who has committed to changing that culture going forward. Now, a new report from Deadspin, based on interviews with former and current employees, shows the important role that workplace culture plays in enabling sexual harassment.

A Real Life Animal House

The stories in the SI report are sadly predictable: the now-former President and CEO of the team once openly suggested that a female subordinate was going to be gang-banged over the weekend, and openly propositioned women for sex; at least one employee was warned, “don’t get trapped in an elevator with him.” A male employee in ticket sales was known for watching pornography at his desk. And in one instance, an employee allegedly dropped a used condom outside an office bathroom, which the head of human resources picked up with a paper towel. SI quotes one employee describing the office as a “real life Animal House.”

Deadspin’s interviews shed light on how this culture persisted for so long: employees were under constant pressure to perform, and there was a feeling that management was either unwilling or unable to do anything about the culture. One former employee described the job as

like being married to a Hollywood star, knowing he was abusive emotionally and physically to you, but you stayed with him because he’s a star.”

In the case of the porn-watching employee, Deadspin reports that employees felt they had no choice but to ignore it because the employee had a long tenure with the team, was known for bringing in a log of money, and, perhaps most importantly, was seen as close with the powerful people above him, who were known for caring only about how many tickets their employees sold. Reports of sexualized comments were dismissed as “talking shop.” And in perhaps the most widely-discussed revelation, the team allowed an accused-domestic abuser to remain with the team, even after he was arrested for alleged abuse of one woman, and was widely suspected of abusing a coworker whom he was dating.

When the Office Culture Protects the Harassers

Above all, the team’s handling of the abuse and harassment allegations sent a message to female employees that they were “just there to protect the men.” Sexual harassment persisted while male employees were given multiple chances. And the physical environment didn’t help. Many employees worked in a completely-open office space, meaning that everyone knew when someone was screamed at, belittled, or harassed. One employee stated that she was initially shocked by the abuse, but felt like she had to look the other way to keep her job.

As the #metoo and #timesup culture movement continues to evolve, it is stories like this that will help us understand how we got here, and how we can improve. In the case of the Mavs, the office culture played a critical role in enabling sexual harassment. Management looked the other way, or even participated in the harassment, intimidating victims and would-be whistleblowers alike into silence. It is in such a situation that an attorney can be a vital resource to a victim or whistleblower. We owe our clients a duty of confidentiality, and can also provide an objective analysis of the situation and possible remedies. If you have been a victim of or witness to sexual harassment in the workplace, don’t hesitate to reach out, especially when the office’s culture would encourage you to remain silent.