Lawyers for United Airlines Inc. are denying a federal agency’s claims that the company created a hostile workplace for failing to adequately punish a commercial pilot who continually posted nude photos of a female flight attendant.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August sued United in San Antonio federal district court, alleging the Chicago-based company “created, enabled and perpetuated” a hostile workplace and didn’t do enough to protect the flight attendant.
The pilot, Mark J. Uhlenbrock, was sentenced in September 2016 to 41 months in federal prison on a stalking charge. Uhlenbrock, who pleaded guilty that year, was released from custody last month. Prosecutors alleged Uhlenbrock, after his relationship with the United employee ended, posted nude photographs of her on the internet without her consent.
“United does not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace, which is why when this matter was brought to our attention, we conducted an investigation and took action,” a United spokeswoman said in a statement Tuesday. “As outlined in our answer to the complaint, we firmly disagree with the EEOC’s assessment of the situation and are well prepared to vigorously defend ourselves against the lawsuit.”
The company is disputing many of the assertions the EEOC alleged in its complaint in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. The agency filed the complaint on behalf of a flight attendant identified as Jane Doe in court papers.
Seyfarth Shaw partner Ada Dolph in Chicago, a lawyer for United, said in Monday’s court filing that Uhlenbrock’s alleged conduct was “outside the course and scope” of his employment as a commercial pilot. The alleged conduct was “not authorized or condoned by United,” the company’s lawyers wrote.
“United promptly and thoroughly investigated Doe’s concerns each time she raised them with the company; however, United was unable to substantiate that Uhlenbrock engaged in sexual harassment in the workplace or that his alleged conduct altered Doe’s working environment,” Dolph wrote.
The EEOC complaint alleged the woman and Uhlenbrock dated from 2002 to 2006, and during that time, he took provocative pictures and video of her that he posted on websites. A coworker told the woman he found the photos on a website.
The agency’s complaint alleges the pilot continued to post the photos and videos years afterward, including posts that instructed prospective airline passengers to “look for her when you fly!”
The woman filed private lawsuits in Texas between 2009 and 2010, and secured civil court rulings directing Uhlenbrock to stop posting the images and to pay damages. The FBI in 2015 executed a search warrant at Uhlenbrock’s house and recovered a laptop that contained nude photos of the victim and bookmarks to links where Uhlenbrock had posted the photos.
Federal authorities said in charging documents that the pilot posted the images “with the intent to harass and intimidate” the flight attendant.
The flight attendant, who has worked for United since 1989, claims she reported the unlawful activity several times to the company through managers and human resources. In its response to the EEOC lawsuit, United acknowledged the employee came forward with information about alleged inappropriate behavior.
“United did not act with discriminatory motives, but even if it had, such acts or omissions would have been taken in any event for legitimate, non-discriminatory, and non-pretextual reasons,” United’s lawyers wrote Monday. “For example, United’s ability to discipline, discharge, or otherwise change the terms and conditions governing Uhlenbrock’s employment was constrained by the collective bargaining agreement that governed his employment.”
United said that in January 2012 it concluded Uhlenbrock’s original posting of the photos violated the company’s “working together guidelines” and that Uhlenbrock was “counseled.” United said it placed “written documentation of this counseling” in the pilot’s personnel file.
In 2013, Doe filed another complaint with human resources alleging that Uhlenbrock was continuing to post nude images of her. United said in its court filing that the company was “unable to confirm that the images had in fact been reposted by Uhlenbrock and not instead by the websites reusing the original images.”
Uhlenbrock remained on long term disability status until he retired in July 2016, United said Monday. The company disputed the EEOC’s contention that the pilot retired with full benefits.