United Facing Lawsuit Over Sexual Harassment and Discrimination
Once again, United Airlines finds itself embroiled in yet another legal brouhaha, this time accused of failing to protect an employee from sexual harassment in the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit against United Airlines Thursday, alleging that the carrier "violated federal law by subjecting a female flight attendant to a hostile work environment of sexual harassment over a multi-year period."
United pilot Mark Uhlenbrock has been accused of posting sexually explicit images of a United flight attendant online since 2006, often including her full name, home airport, and even the airline's "Fly the Friendly Skies" slogan. According to the EEOC lawsuit, the posts were seen by coworkers and adversely affected the flight attendant's working environment. The harassment continued for years. In 2015, the FBI arrested Uhlenbrock for continuing to post nude images of the woman, who had been in a relationship with him in 2006. Although Uhlenbrock ultimately pleaded guilty to charges of stalking and was sentenced to 41 months in prison, the EEOC complaint states that Uhlenbrock was still allowed to retire from United Airlines with full benefits in 2016.
The flight attendant turned to the EEOC for recourse after filing several formal complaints with the airline, supported by "substantial evidence," according to the EEOC lawsuit, with no consequence to the pilot. The EEOC lawsuit states that "such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, including sexual harassment."
"Here, 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," said EEOC Supervisory Trial Attorney Eduardo Juarez. "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."
The EEOC first attempted to reach a voluntary settlement with Uhlenbrock via an unsuccessful conciliation process, after which the suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, San Antonio Division. The lawsuit asks for "appropriate relief" from United Airlines, including compensatory and punitive damages, and a permanent injunction enjoining the airline from engaging in any further gender-discriminatory practices. The lawsuit also asks the court to order United to institute and implement more rigorous policies to eradicate and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
"Employers have an obligation to take steps to stop sexual harassment in the workplace when they learn it is occurring through cyber-bullying via the internet and social media," said Philip Moss, a trial attorney for the EEOC based out of the agency's San Antonio field office. "When employers fail to take action, they fail their workers and enable the harassment to continue."
While Uhlenbrock's attorney has not offered any public comment at this time, United Airlines told ABC News: “We have reviewed the allegations in the complaint and disagree with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s description of the situation. United does not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace and will vigorously defend against this case."