Federal officials have sued United Airlines, alleging that company officials did nothing to protect a female flight attendant from years of harassment by a male colleague.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, says the airline refused to take action against a pilot who had taken compromising photos of the flight attendent and posted them online.
According to the lawsuit, the woman, identified only as Jane Doe, had been in a “consensual, intimate” relationship with a co-worker, a United Airlines pilot for about four years starting in 2002. While they were involved, she allowed him to take pictures and record video of her in “provocative poses.”
But the EEOC suit alleges that in 2006 she discovered the man, Mark Uhlenbrock, had posted some of the images on a website for swingers without her knowledge. When he refused to stop posting the images, she ended the relationship.
For the next decade, Uhlenbrock continued to post pictures and/or video of the woman on pornographic websites, the lawsuit claims. The postings included partially nude images of her in her uniform and listed her name, occupation and home airport. The suit says one post instructed prospective airline passengers to “Look for her when you fly!” because she was a “new reason to ‘Fly the Friendly Skies,’ ” a reference to one of United’s slogans. The suit says she later learned the some of the images were viewed by at least two of her colleagues at the airline.
The woman “diligently and aggressively” sought to stop Uhlenbrock from posting the images, which she never intended to have shared publicly. She filed at least three civil lawsuits between 2009 and 2010. As part of those cases, the woman was awarded more than $100,000 in damages and the court issued a permanent injunction barring Uhlenbrock from posting the images. But he continued to share them, the suit alleges. The Federal Bureau of Investigation then got involved in the case.
In 2015, the FBI arrested Uhlenbrock and charged him with stalking, court papers said. In 2016 pleaded guilty to Internet stalking in connection with the case. He was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison, which he is currently serving, and three years of supervised release.
Uhlenbrock could not be reached for comment. A call and email to his former attorneys were not returned.
United Airlines became involved after the woman took her complaint to officials there.
According to the EEOC suit, the woman complained to her superiors, the company’s human resources department and United’s general counsel on several occasions starting in 2011, but officials declined to take action. In one instance, the woman was allegedly told that Uhlenbrock’s conduct did not constitute sexual harassment in the workplace and did “not warrant intervention or action by the employer.”
But the suit argues that as a pilot, Uhlenbrock had supervisory authority over flight attendants. In another instance, Uhlenbrock’s supervisor provided a letter of reference indicating that the pilot had no issues that “required discipline, counseling or extra training.”
In January 2016, after Uhlenbrock had been arrested by the FBI, United granted him long-term disability. He continued to be paid by the airline and received benefits. In July 2016, one month after he pleaded guilty to federal stalking charges, the company allowed him to retire with full benefits, according to court documents.
“Despite having employee rules of conduct, disciplinary mechanisms, applicable policies and procedures, and the authority to prevent and correct the continued unlawful conduct of Uhlenbrock, Defendant failed or refused to take reasonably necessary actions to protect Flight Attendant Doe from harassment while Captain Uhlenbrock was employed,” the EEOC suit alleges.
The suit contends that the woman suffered “humiliation, emotional pain and suffering, stress, inconvenience, loss of self-esteem and loss of enjoyment of life” as a result of the harassment. In some cases, Uhlenbrock’s conduct affected which routes she would fly. In 2015, she took leave from her job.
In a statement, United said it had done nothing wrong.
“We have reviewed the allegations in the complaint and disagree with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s description of the situation,” a spokesman said. “United does not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace and will vigorously defend against this case.”
The suit asks for financial compensation for the woman to be determined at trial. It also requests that United be ordered to create and carry out programs to promote equal opportunity for women in the workplace and that United cease any practices that condone or encourage a hostile work environment.
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