Last week, United Airlines settled the harassment claim of a flight attendant who alleged that her co-worker and former boyfriend posted sexually explicit images of her online without her consent. EEOC v. United Airlines, Inc. (C.C.W.D. Tex. 2019).
The flight attendant and her co-worker, pilot Mark Uhlenbrock, dated for about four years. During their relationship, she alleges that Uhlenbrock took consensual and nonconsensual sexual photos of her. After she ended the relationship, Uhlenbrock began posting the images online. Uhlenbrock continued to post images of her for approximately ten years. Posts included her name, occupation, affiliation with United, and home airport. Some images were captioned with United’s slogan “Fly the Friendly Skies.”
The flight attendant allegedly complained to United about Uhlenbrock’s conduct multiple times. United kept Uhlenbrock employed, and he eventually retired. The FBI arrested Uhlenbrock in 2016. He plead guilty to internet stalking and is currently serving time in prison.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit against the airline on the flight attendant’s behalf. The EEOC alleged that United should have done something about Uhlenbrock’s posts because they were meant to affect the flight attendant’s conditions at work. The EEOC argued that United has a responsibility to protect its employee from harassment even if it happens online. United disagreed with the EEOC’s position and argued that it does not and did not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace.
The settlement means that there will be no decision on the merits of this case. This case is interesting for the EEOC’s argument that an employer’s obligation to respond to reported sexual harassment extends to private social media sites. Employers know how to respond to harassing behavior in the break room; they may not know what to do with harassing behavior online. We will keep an eye out for other cases like this. In the meantime, if you have a similar situation, contact Employers Council for assistance.