United knew one of its pilots was posting humiliating, sexually explicit photos of a flight attendant online — but for years, the airline did nothing to stop it, federal trial lawyers say.
The United pilot included identifying details about the woman he’d previously dated (such as her home airport and her name) along with the lewd images of her that he “frequently” shared on an assortment of websites, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). United said it disputes the description of events in the lawsuit.
Some of the pilot’s sexually explicit postings urged readers to “look for her when you fly!” or alluded to the airline’s slogan by suggesting she was a “new reason to ‘Fly the Friendly Skies,’” according to the lawsuit.
“United was aware of the intimate details of how its pilot was harassing its flight attendant, but took no responsibility to put a stop to it,” EEOC Supervisory Trial Attorney Eduardo Juarez said in a statement, adding that “over a period of many years, the flight attendant had to work every day in fear of humiliation if a co-worker or customer recognized her from the pilot’s postings.”
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The woman had been in a consensual relationship with the pilot, Mark Uhlenbrock, from about 2002 to 2006, according to the lawsuit, the text of which was posted online by Texas Lawyer. During that relationship she had allowed him to take photos and videos of her in “provocative poses” during sexual interactions, the lawsuit said.
Then, in 2006, a male gate agent in San Antonio told the flight attendant that he had seen nude photos of her on a website for “swingers” — and that he was under the impression he’d been talking to her online, where she had sent him even more nude photos, according to the lawsuit. That’s when the flight attendant realized her boyfriend had been secretly sharing the images she had intended to be private, and in some cases was pretending to be her, the lawsuit said.
Around that time, the woman broke up with Uhlenbrock. But for the next decade, Uhlenbrock “continued to regularly post sexually explicit photos, videos, and stories” about her online, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for the flight attendant, as well as action to keep the kind of harassment the lawsuit alleges from occurring in the future, according to the EEOC.
Even after the woman persistently went to the airline to report the harassment and provide plenty of evidence, the airline “failed to prevent and correct the pilot’s behavior,” the EEOC said.
The lawsuit alleges that United violated federal law by subjecting the female flight attendant to sexual harassment in a hostile work environment for years. Employment discrimination based on sex (which includes sexual harassment) violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act, according to the federal agency.
“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,” Philip Moss, a trial attorney in the the agency’s San Antonio office, said in a statement.
Uhlenbrock was arrested by the FBI on stalking charges in 2015 over his posting of nude photos of the woman, the lawsuit said. He pleaded guilty to stalking charges in June 2016 and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.
In January 2016, United gave Uhlenbrock long-term disability, and he stayed on the airline’s payroll until July 2016. That’s when “he was allowed to retire with full benefits,” the lawsuit said.
“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,” United spokesperson Erin Benson said in a statement emailed to McClatchy.