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.

Seo-Yun was a 15-year-old public high school student who came to the United States from South Korea at the age of ten. By the time she reached high school, Seo-Yun was speaking English fluently and excelling academically. Seo-Yun even published her own first book of poetry, which contained poems in both English and Korean.

Nonetheless, high school bullies went after Seo-Yun because she was shy, deferential to her teachers and peers alike, and had a slight accent. The most vicious group was led by an 18 year-old sophomore named Todd, who unfortunately for Seo-Yun, sat right next to her in science class. Todd had been held back twice, and had been the victim of bullying himself. But nothing made Todd feel better than taking out fears, his anger, and his profound sense of inferiority over someone more vulnerable than he.

At first, Todd and his group of bullies mostly leveled cultural and racial slurs at Seo-Yun.   But when they saw that she did not fight back, and the teachers chose to ignore the situation rather than intervene, things escalated.

Bullying Turns to Sexual Harassment

Todd began passing graphic and sexually explicit notes to Seo-Yun in science class whenever the teacher turned his back. Mortified and humiliated, Seo-Yun would just crumple up the notes and put them in her bookbag, hoping no one would seem them. But things got even worse. Todd began to reach under Seo-Yun’s desk and touch her thighs, telling her to watch out after school because he would be waiting for her, and couldn’t wait to have sex with her, whether she wanted to or not. One day, Seo-Yun just couldn’t take it anymore and let out a blood-curdling scream in the middle of science class. She was removed from class and served detention for disrupting the lesson.

Later that week, Seo-Yun had to make up the science quiz she missed when she was removed from class. Just as she began the quiz, Todd and his friends entered the room and surrounded her. A substitute teacher was administering the quiz and appeared petrified of Todd and just sat there watching Todd taunt Seo-Yun, whisper sexually explicit threats in her ear, and make sexually explicit jokes to the cackling laughter of his lackeys. After several excruciating minutes, the substitute teacher finally asked Todd and his friends to leave the room. Seo-Yun failed the quiz.

The Public High School Fails to Remedy the Harassment

When Seo-Yun’s grades began their steep decline, her parents continually tried to find out what was going on. While Seo-Yun initially refused to tell them, she eventually broke down and explained Todd’s harassment. Seo-Yun’s parents called the school, set up a parent-teacher conference with the science teacher. The science teacher said he had noticed that Todd had been bothering Seo-Yun, and that he had already spoken to Todd about it. The teacher assured Seo-Yun’s parents that nothing like that would happen again and that the principal had been informed about the situation. But Seo-Yun’s troubles continued after the parent-teacher conference. In fact, the teacher did not even move Todd away from Seo-Yun.  And Todd did not change his ways. He just became a little more discreet by approaching Seo-Yun when no one was around, threatening her, and touching her inappropriately. Seo-Yun’s parents learned that the harassment persisted, and repeatedly called the principal, only to leave messages that were unreturned. Seo-Yun grew increasingly withdrawn, could not concentrate on her schoolwork, and began failing all of her classes. As it so happened, Seo-Yun was not Todd’s only victim. Later that year he pled guilty to sexually assaulting another classmate, and was expelled from the school. But by that time, Seo-Yun had suffered lasting damage.

The Standard for Successfully Suing an Educational Institution For Knowingly Failing to Remedy Student-on-Student Harassment

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 provides that subject to certain limited exceptions, no person in the United states shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity received Federal financial assistance. The United States Supreme Court has interpreted Title IX as providing a private right of action for damages for the failure to remedy student-on-student harassment – but only where the federal funding recipient acts with deliberate indifference, and the harassment is so severe that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit. In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court held that there is only liability for damages where the funding recipient has control over not only the harasser, but the context in which the known harassment occurs. Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999). Recently, the University of South Florida was sued for allegedly failing to remedy alleged student-on-student sexual assault. The U.S. District Court found that the student who brought the suit stated a claim under Title IX, without deciding the merits of the claim. If you or someone you know has been subjected to a hostile educational environment, or has a child who has been subjected to a hostile educational environment, we may be able to help.