EEOC Files Sexual Harassment Suit Against United Airlines for Failing to Protect Flight Attendant
Flight attendants have a difficult job. Although their primary job is passenger safety, they are more frequently treated as bar servers, maids, and worse. By worse, we mean that sometimes a passenger, pilot or co-worker treat them like sex objects. The story you are about to read gives new meaning to the term “hostile workplace.” It will likely make you rethink flying United Airlines.
Our story starts with a flight attendant we will call “Jane Doe,” a United employee for almost thirty years. Jane is a flight attendant based in San Antonio.
Between 2002 and 2006, Jane was in a consensual relationship with a United pilot named Captain Mark Uhlenbrock. As a captain, Uhlenbrock had supervisory control over Jane and any other crew that might be flying in his aircraft.
It isn’t unusual for a flight attendant to date a pilot. Nor is a consensual relationship illegal, although some employers prohibit relationships when one employee supervises another. The pilot to things to a new level, however, when he began posting nude pictures of Jane online.
According to a federal complaint filed in San Antonio this week, a United gate agent told Jane that he had seen nude photos of her on a swingers’ website. These were photos that had been previously taken by Uhlenbrock.
Jane broke off her relationship with Captain Uhlenbrock.
Things should have ended there but Uhlenbrock didn’t take down the photos. Not only wouldn’t he take them down, the complaint says, “Over the next decade, [he] continued to regularly post sexually explicit photos, videos, and stories about Ms. Doe on the internet. Ms. Doe came to learn that these images had been viewed by at least two of her United Airlines coworkers and were presumably accessible to tens of thousands of United Airlines personnel and coworkers, along with countless other people in the U.S. and around the world who are passengers of United Airlines.”
He allegedly even listed her name and employment details.
Jane took her case to court and filed several complaints against Uhlenbrock. Ultimately, she was awarded damages and received a court order making him stop posting pictures.
As more and more employees saw the photos, Jane began to feel trapped. She was afraid to be on a flight in case Uhlenbrock was the captain and fearful for her own safety. In 2011, she asked United for help. The EEOC says that no help was forthcoming.
Prior to contacting the EEOC, Jane made one more effort of getting United to step in. She went to United’s HR department in November 8, 2011.
She was interviewed and gave United’s managers “evidence of postings, incriminating deposition testimony of Uhlenbrock, as well as information about her own efforts to stop the harassment by the Captain. [She] advised the Defendant’s managers that she was concerned for her safety and that Uhlenbrock’s conduct adversely affected her daily work life. As a result of the harassment by Captain Uhlenbrock, Flight Attendant Doe had no reasonable alternative but to bid on only those flights or schedules by which she could most likely avoid working together with Uhlenbrock.”
United Airlines has a “Built on Dignity and Respect” policy when it comes to relationships among co-workers. We are shocked how posting naked pictures of a subordinate and doing so years after a court ordered Uhlenbrock to stop constitutes “dignity and respect” in the workplace.
Evidently, the EEOC feels the same way.
Mark Uhlenbrock Gets A Full Pension, United Airline's Flight Attendant Gets Nothing?
Unfortunately, clueless United Airlines feels differently. According to the EEOC’s complaint, “Upon review of Ms. Doe’s claims, United Airlines advised her that Uhlenbrock’s conduct purportedly did not constitute sex harassment in the workplace and concluded that it did not warrant intervention or action by the employer. No written discipline was issued to Uhlenbrock.”
That’s right, Captain Uhlenbrock didn’t even get written up! But it gets worse. Much worse!
Uhlenbrock continued flying for United and continued posting nude pictures of United flight attendant. Finally in 2015, the FBI stepped in and arrested Captain Uhlenbrock for criminal stalking.
Did United fire him then? Not even close! He was allowed to file for long term disability. In 2016 he retired with full benefits. [There is somewhat of a happy ending, that same year a federal judge tossed Captain Uhlenbrock into prison for 41 months.]
We understand that United may not have been able to stop Uhlenbrock. But they had a duty to at least try. While he was rewarded with a full pension, our flight attendant Jane Doe suffered years of humiliation, misery, emotional distress and stress. She also lost money as she says that she didn’t bid many flights for fear that Captain Voyeur might be in charge of the flight.
Things became so bad that she had to take a leave of absence. He commits a crime and gets paid. She is the victim of sexual harassment and has to leave work? The “friendly skies of United” don’t seem so friendly.
Our bottom line? Even though United may not have been able to stop Uhlenbrock from posting pictures, they had a duty to protect Jane and a duty to take reasonable steps. If there ever was a hostile work environment case, this is it!
According to the New York Times, United Airlines “disagreed with the lawsuit’s description of the facts.” They said in an email, “United doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace.”
While they “vigorously defend the case,” we hope the flying public vigorously avoids flying United Airlines. We also encourage other flight attendants to step forward and report sexual harassment.
Are You the Victim of Sexual Harassment or a Hostile Work Environment?
Sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Even if there is no direct sexual contact or demands for favors, employers can be held responsible for a hostile environment.
The wrongdoer can be supervisor, a co-worker, contract worker or even a passenger. Often, however, the wrongdoer has a position of power or authority over the victim. (Just like Captain Uhlenbrock has supervisory authority of all flight attendants on his plane.)
Jane Doe was fortunate to have the EEOC take an interest in her case. Unfortunately, the overworked agency takes less than 1% of the cases filed. That means it is critical to have an experienced legal team on your side.
If you have been subjected to improper sexual conduct at work, or suffered retaliation for reporting such conduct, contact the sexual harassment lawyers at the Whistleblower Law Group today. We can be reached by phone at 877.858.8018, by email at [hidden email] or online. We also invite you to visit our sexual harassment FAQ page for all the answers to your questions.
Most all cases handled on a continency fee (success fee) basis. All inquiries are protected by the attorney – client privilege and kept completely confidential. Depending on where the case is filed, some cases may be handled with co-counsel or our partner law firms.