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EEOC to United Airlines: Conduct outside the workplace can create harassment in the workplace

A case involving “revenge porn” photos of a flight attendant published online by a pilot for the same airline promises to illuminate an employer’s duty to take affirmative measures to protect employees against sexual harassment in the workplace.

According to a recent complaint filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against United Airlines, the airline’s duty to keep its workplace free from sexual harassment includes a duty to crack down on harassment occurring outside the workplace as well — at least when bad acts are brought to its attention, multiple times, over a period of several years.

The EEOC’s complaint alleges that United Airlines knew about the pilot’s “revenge porn” posts targeting the flight attendant but unlawfully did nothing about them.

“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, an EEOC attorney. “When employers fail to take action, they fail their workers and enable the harassment to continue.”

The EEOC’s complaint was a long time in coming, according to the government. According to the EEOC, the flight attendant filed three civil lawsuits against the pilot. She obtained restraining orders against him in 2009 and 2011. Reporting by the San Antonio Express-News indicated that the pilot settled these cases for $110,000.

The flight attendant also purportedly complained to United Airlines officials in 2011. No corrective action took place as a result of these complaints. The pilot continued to work at the airline.

In 2013, the flight attendant filed another complaint with United Airlines. According to the flight attendant, the pilot was continuing to post photos of her online, sometimes while on the job during layovers between flights. United Airlines investigated but, according to the EEOC, took no action “that could be reasonably calculated to be effective.”

The flight attendant next complained to the FBI, which arrested the pilot in 2015. Federal charges notwithstanding, the pilot remained actively employed at United Airlines until January 2016 when the airline granted him a long-term disability. He pleaded guilty to a federal stalking offense in June 2016 and retired with full benefits one month later.

In its complaint, the EEOC alleged that United Airlines’ failure to address that the pilot’s actions interfered with the flight attendant’s ability to perform her job. The EEOC asserts that United Airlines’ inaction subjected the flight attendant to a sexually hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, including sexual harassment. The EEOC is seeking a permanent injunction preventing the airline from allowing hostile work environment for women. It also seeks money damages for the flight attendant.

United Airlines told the San Antonio Express-News that its conduct did not violate federal law. “United does not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace and will vigorously defend against this case,” the airline said through a spokesman.

The case is EEOC v. United Airlines, Inc., No. 5:18-cv-817 (W.D. Texas, complaint filed Aug. 9, 2018).

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