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.