United settles suit over hidden porn found on flights
United Airlines has settled a federal sexual-harassment lawsuit with a former pilot who grounded herself after repeatedly finding pornography hidden on the flight decks of domestic airline flights.
Seattle Times staff reporter
United Airlines has settled a federal sexual-harassment lawsuit filed by a former pilot who grounded herself after repeatedly finding pornography hidden in the cockpits of domestic airline flights.
Details of the settlement with former Capt. Lisa Stout are secret. The 2-year-old lawsuit was resolved earlier this month, just weeks before it was set to go to trial before U.S. District Judge John Coughenour in Seattle.
Before the settlement, Coughenour had ruled that United's efforts to dismiss the case were "unpersuasive," and determined that Stout would be allowed to seek punitive damages against the airline if the suit went to trial.
Stout's attorney, Victoria Vreeland, said a nondisclosure agreement executed with the settlement prevented her from talking about it. United's attorneys did not return telephone messages. An airline spokeswoman in Chicago, Megan McCarthy, said the airline would not comment.
Court documents show that Stout, a United 737 captain based out of Seattle, found pornographic photos of women on more than 20 flights in 2004 and 2005. Her lawsuit alleged that United's efforts to catch the perpetrators were inadequate and the company retaliated against her after she reported it.
The photos were mostly found in hidden spots, such as under a cap on a safety device known as a "stick shaker," or taped to the lid of the unused ashtray. Stout logged each instance in the flight log and had maintenance workers take the photos down, according to court filings.
According to her lawsuit, she developed a "severe condition" that required her to take medication and, ultimately, ground herself in August 2005. The judge either sealed or redacted the details of Stout's medical condition from otherwise public documents.
United argued that Stout could not have been offended by the sexually explicit photos because she once worked in a retail store that sold pornographic magazines, she sometimes sketched nudes as an artist and she had attended art shows displaying photos of nude women.
The airline also argued that she was motivated to claim a "mental condition ... so that she could get long-term disability payments to support her art career," Coughenour noted in a November opinion that sent the lawsuit toward trial.
United also said she should be barred from recovering some damages because it uncovered evidence during the litigation that Stout had made "false statements" to the Federal Aviation Administration which, had United known about them at the time, would have justified her dismissal.
The details of those allegations were redacted from the documents.
At least two other female pilots have sued their airlines over pornography found on the flight deck. In one case, Continental pilot Tammy Blakey won a judgment against the airline of more than $150,000 in 1998.
Alaska Airlines pilot Jean Price sued the airline in 1995 after finding pornography on her flight deck. The Price lawsuit was settled. After Stout complained, her supervisor and a human-resources official for United decided they would not be able to determine who was placing the offensive material on the flight decks because so many people had access: flight crews, maintenance crews, mechanics and others. Instead, they sent an e-mail to flight crews warning them that "inappropriate materials" had been found in cockpits and telling them to note any further instances in the logbook and notify the flight office.
They never specified what the material was and Coughenour noted that the e-mail was "so vague as to the type of 'inappropriate materials' discovered that it is not even clear to the court that employees were gently reminded of United's sexual-harassment policies."
He also said the plan left it to Stout and others to "unwittingly" find the pornography and the judge said he questioned whether it was "reasonably calculated to end the harassment."
The investigation was closed after the first e-mail was sent, according to court documents.
Stout continued to find the pornography, however, and made a second verbal report. After that, she continued to note each instance in plane logbooks, which company officials acknowledge they did not review.
Coughenour ruled in November that it would be "highly unlikely" that a jury wouldn't find that the pornography made for a hostile work environment — one of the findings necessary to prove a claim of sexual harassment. But he said that, ultimately, that issue and several others would best be left for a jury to decide.
Stout also claimed she came under scrutiny from management after the reports, and was docked pay for refusing to fly because she was fatigued — even though United boasts a "no fault" program allowing pilots to pull themselves from the flight line for fatigue and not face retaliation.
United insists that the instances were not related and that Stout was a difficult and abrasive employee. The judge, however, noted that United "reprimanded and red-flagged" Stout only after she had complained and that, before that, she had no performance issues or problems with her supervisors.
Coughenour said that, while the question should be decided by a jury, he was convinced that a jury "could reasonably find a ... case of retaliation."
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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