Updated at 4:45 p.m.
United Airlines Inc. did not discipline a pilot who posted sexually explicit images of a flight attendant online for nearly a decade, even after the woman reported the behavior to high-ranking officials, won several civil lawsuits and he pleaded guilty to an FBI investigation and served jail time, a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit filed on Thursday alleges.
The EEOC’s complaint, filed in San Antonio federal court, alleged pilot Mark Uhlenbrock posted sexually explicit images of a flight attendant, identified as Jane Doe, on pornographic websites, using her name, home airport and referencing the airline’s tagline “Fly the Friendly Skies,” as an innuendo. The lawsuit alleged the airline allowed a hostile work environment to persist.
A United Airlines representative said in a statement: “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.”
The docket did not identify a lawyer for the Chicago-based company.
Despite pleading guilty in 2016 to an FBI stalking charge for posting the photos, the pilot was not fired and allowed to retain full benefits and retirement, according to the EEOC. The complaint accused United Airlines of taking a “passive and ineffective approach” to prevent and stop the alleged harassment.
“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 in the EEOC’s San Antonio field office, in a statement. “When employers fail to take action, they fail their workers and enable the harassment to continue.”
United Airlines is one of the largest companies the EEOC has sued for alleged sexual harassment amid the #MeToo movement. The agency, however, has not reported a spike in sexual harassment complaints since last fall, when the movement put a spotlight on workplace power imbalances between men and women.
According the EEOC lawsuit, the flight attendant worked for the airline since 1989. During a consensual relationship with Uhlenbrock from 2002 to 2006, she allowed him to take provocative pictures of her. He also took at least one picture without her permission, the EEOC said. Uhlenbrock allegedly posted photos to websites for “swingers” and other pornographic websites, over the next decade until at least 2016, the EEOC claimed.
These pictures included Jane Doe wearing her United uniform, the EEOC said, and several co-workers said they had seen the images. According to the complaint, one post instructed prospective airline passengers to “look for her when you fly!” because she was a “new reason to ‘Fly the Friendly Skies.’”
Doe filed three civil lawsuits against Uhlenbrock in 2009 and 2010. He paid damages and a court ordered an injunction, yet he continued to post photos, according to the EEOC complaint.
The flight attendant said she complained to managers, the Human Resources Department and her attorney sent a letter to high-ranking officials after the pilot’s behavior was not disciplined. A review of her complaint by human resources concluded that the conduct did not constitute sexual harassment, the EEOC said.
In 2015, Uhlenbrock was arrested and charged with stalking for his continual posting of nude images of Jane Doe without her knowledge. During the investigation, he admitted to posting the images. He was not fired during the investigation, the complaint alleges.
Uhlenbrock pleaded guilty to stalking in 2016 and was sentenced to 41 months in prison. The complaint alleged Uhlenbrock retired from United with full benefits.
The lawsuit seeks damages against United for alleged unlawful employment practices, and it asks a judge to order the company to “institute and carry out policies, practices and programs which provide equal employment opportunities for women and which eradicate the effects of its past and present unlawful employment practices.”
The complaint in EEOC v. United Airlines is posted below:
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