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United Airlines flight attendant's race bias case reinstated

Posted On: Jul. 6, 2015 12:00 AM CST

United Airlines flight attendant's race bias case reinstated

United Airlines Inc. failed to adequately respond to death threats received by a black airline attendant, said an appeals court in overturning a lower court ruling and reinstating her hostile work environment claim.

Renee Pryor, who joined Chicago-based United in 1984, discovered a note in her mailbox in the Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, in 2011 claiming to be a hunting license to hunt and kill black people that had a racial epithet and included a hand-drawn image of a person hanging from a pole or tree, according to Wednesday's ruling by the 4th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia in Renee Pryor v. United Air Lines Inc.

Despite her complaints to company officials, Ms. Pryor wound up having to file complaints herself with the police and the airline's employee service center, according to the ruling. Eventually, United Airlines conducted an investigation and concluded it could not identify a suspect.

Ms. Pryor receiving a subsequent note, and other black airline attendants received similar notes and were subjected to racist rumors and breakroom postings, according to the ruling.

Ms. Pryor relocated to George Bush International Airport in Houston, where she has not reported any further race-related incidents.

In March 2012, Ms. Pryor filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging that United's failure to adequately investigate the rumors and racist notes left in her mailbox constituted unlawful discrimination.

After receiving a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC, Ms. Pryor filed suit in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, charging the airline with race discrimination and a hostile work environment.

The District Court dismissed the case, concluding that while Ms. Pryor had been subject to a racially hostile work environment, the airline was not liable for the offensive conduct.

The three-judge appeals court panel agreed Ms. Pryor had been subject to a hostile work environment and reinstated the case.

“It bears emphasizing that an employer's response need not be perfect, or even embody best practices, to be reasonably calculated to end harassing conduct,” said the ruling.

But “a reasonable jury could conclude that the response United actually chose was neither prompt nor reasonably calculated.

“Indeed, a reasonable jury could find that United's response was instead reluctant and reactive, intended to minimize any disruption to day-to-day operations instead of identifying a perpetrator and deterring future harassment,” said the appeals panel in reinstating the case.

Last year, a U.S. District Judge entered a $735,000 consent decree resolving a race harassment lawsuit, in which the EEOC charged a Chicago grocery wholesaler with tolerating a racially hostile workplace.