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Should employers be liable for revenge porn among workers?

For more than a decade, a United Airlines pilot posted online sexually explicit photos of his ex-girlfriend, who was also a flight attendant at the airline. She complained to the authorities and to United—and now the company is facing a federal lawsuit for, the government says, allowing the pilot’s behavior to go unchecked.

Bloomberg reports that, in a complaint filed last week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that by failing to take action when the flight attendant reported the pilot’s behavior, United Airlines tolerated the harassment and created a hostile work environment.

United disagrees with the EEOC’s description of the situation and said in a statement that it “does not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace.”
Nearly 40% of Americans have dated a co-worker, and this case suggests employers may be liable for what happens during the relationship—or after it ends.

The United case centers on Mark Uhlenbrock, the pilot, who took both consensual and non-consensual photos of his then-girlfriend during their four-year relationship, according to the complaint. After they broke up, he posted those photos online over a period of 10 years, without her consent.

This is what’s commonly known as “revenge porn.” It’s a criminal offense in 40 states and the District of Columbia, and the flight attendant went to the authorities. Uhlenbrock, 64, eventually pleaded guilty to “internet stalking” and is serving a 41-month prison term.

The flight attendant went to court to get an injunction to stop him from posting the photos. But in spite of her repeated complaints to United Airlines officials, the pilot kept his job until he was arrested in 2016.

The EEOC argues that a company has the responsibility to protect its employees from harassment, even if that harassment happens online instead of in the break room, but there’s little precedent.

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