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.

Scandal in the Florida Legislature

The Florida legislature was rocked by scandals in 2017 when two Florida Senate investigations against Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) were prompted by six women accusing him of sexual harassment. Rep. Latvala resigned from the Senate after the investigations showed that he engaged in harassing and inappropriately touching female staffers and lobbyists, and for potentially violating public corruption laws by demanding sex in exchange for supporting lobbyist initiatives.

Florida State Senator Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair with a lobbyist a day after his affair went public. And, former Republican congressman and Public Service Commission appointee, Ritch Workman, stepped down after female Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Fort Myers) accused him of touching her inappropriately and making vulgar comments.

Senator Lauren Book

These scandals and resignations led Florida State Senator Lauren Book (D- Plantation) to introduce Senate Bill 1628 to make sexual harassment in government offices a crime. The bill would have amended Florida statutes on legislative organization and the code of ethics for public officers and employees by making sexual harassment a crime and outlawing sexual advances by legislators, candidates for public office, agency employees, and lobbyists. The proposed law would have also banned the hiring of lobbyist “closers,” i.e., young men and women expected to submit to sexual advances from lawmakers in the closing days of the legislative session. Even though the Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee approved the bill immediately in January, different versions of the bill were approved at different points by both the Florida House and Senate, it unfortunately was indefinitely postponed and eventually withdrawn from consideration.

What are the existing laws that make sexual harassment unlawful?

Even though SB 1628 died in the Florida Senate, it is expected to make a comeback in the next legislative session. Sen. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), the chair of the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee, who refused to put the bill on the agenda, told the Tampa Bay Times that

It needs a little more time to figure out all that’s in there. It will be back. That subject is never finished.”

Outside of the Florida government, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates both federal and Florida law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. In Florida, the Florida Civil Rights Act (“FCRA”) of 1992, Section 760.01, et. seq., Florida Statutes, makes it an unlawful employment practice to “discharge or to fail or refuse to hire any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, national origin, age, handicap, or marital status.” Like Title VII, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination under the FCRA.

Bill Eventually Withdrawn; What Now?

The bill that was inspired by the high-profile resignations would have created a specific sexual harassment statute in Florida prohibiting sexual harassment in government workplaces and agencies failed in the last legislative session and we will have to wait and see if it is reintroduced in the fall. So, what can Florida government employees who suffered sexual harassment do? Title VII and the Florida Civil Rights Act provisions are still in place and provide civil relief, but don’t go as far as SB 1628 would have gone and made sexual harassment a crime or ethics violation. The same standards would need to be applied for now until stronger state legislation is passed.

We Can Help

If you believe you have been the victim of sexual harassment and would like to discuss what remedies may be available to you under both the federal and Florida Civil Rights Acts, please feel free to contact us to discuss your situation.

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.