A US district court judge has thrown out a lawsuit in which an American Airlines flight attendant alleged she was sexually harassed by her colleagues through a series of posts on social media site Facebook.
Judge Eduardo Robreno said on 27 August that he would grant American’s motion to dismiss the case as flight attendant Melissa Chinery had failed to prove that she had experienced “severe or pervasive” sexual harassment or that American had retaliated against her in response to her initial complaints.
According to the opinion, Chinery ran for presidency of the flight attendants’ union on a platform based on her opposition to the union’s current contract with American and was defeated by the incumbent president who supported the existing relationship.
Chinery said that four male flight attendants subsequently harassed her by posting various offensive and threatening comments on Facebook groups and Twitter, which she said amounted to sexual harassment.
Chinery complained to the airline’s human resources department and filed a claim with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission but neither took action. She claimed that the airline later “retaliated against her” by holding a two-hour meeting with her after she was anonymously accused of videoing one of American’s vendors and posting it online.
Chinery then filed a complaint with the United States Court for the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in June 2016, alleging gender discrimination, a sexually hostile work environment, and retaliation. American filed a motion for summary judgement in the case on 28 August of the following year.
Judge Robreno said Chinery had to prove that she belonged to a protected class, that she was qualified for her job, that she was subject to an “adverse employment action” and that members of the opposite sex had been treated “more favourably”, in order to establish gender discrimination.
For the retaliation claim, she had to demonstrate that she was engaged in a protected activity, that she had suffered an “adverse employment action” in connection with such an activity, and that there was a causal connection between the activity and American’s actions, the opinion said.
Both claims failed as Chinery had not established that she had suffered an adverse employment action that was “serious and tangible enough to alter [her] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment”.
“While there are a number of serious questions that are raised by Chinery’s claims – including whether the alleged harassment over Facebook was due to her sex rather than her opinions regarding the union’s collective bargaining agreement with American, and whether the harassment actually occurred in the work environment,” Robreno said, “It is clear that the alleged instances of harassment were not so objectively severe or pervasive to give rise to a cause of action.”
He noted that “insults in the workplace do not constitute discrimination merely because the words used have sexual content or connotations”.
Robreno concluded that the behaviour listed in the complaint was “not so objectively severe or pervasive that it would unreasonably interfere with an employee’s work performance” and that American was entitled to summary judgment based on Chinery’s hostile work environment claim.
“We just received the decision and are obviously disappointed for our clients,” David Koller at Koller Law in Philadelphia, who represented Chinery, said in an emailed statement. “Our efforts were to try to advance the ball on the law as it pertains to social media policies of employers.”
Online harassment is “often worse than face to face harassment,” he added, noting, “We feel the law should recognize that and think this was the case to try to advance those efforts.”
Koller told ALN that he is considering options for appeal.
“Ultimately, what my [client wants] from the justice system – to be free of workplace harassment, online or otherwise – is something every employee everywhere deserves, and the law should recognize that,” he said.
In the United States Court for the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
Melissa Chinery v American Airlines
- Judge Eduardo Robreno
Counsel to Melissa Chinery
- Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen
Faye Cohen and Brian Doyle in Philadelphia
- Koller Law
David Koller in Philadelphia
Counsel to American Airlines
- Gold & Robins
Alan Gold in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania
- The Farrington Law Firm
Daniel Farrington and Sarah Biran in Bethesda, Maryland