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United Failed to Properly Handle Racist Death Threats to Flight Attendant, Says Court

United is back in the hot seat after an appellate court found the airline failed to adequately respond to a racist death threats.

An appellate court found on July 1 that United Airlines failed to properly respond to a racist death threats to an African-American employee, reinstating her case claiming a hostile work environment.

The 4th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., vacated a lower district court’s dismissal of Renee Pryor v. United Air Lines, Inc., which found that although Pryor was subjected to a hostile work environment, the airline was not liable for anonymous, offensive conduct. The appellate court ordered remand for further proceedings.

Pryor, a United employee since 1984 and based at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) beginning in the early 1990s, claims that in January 2011 she found in her company mailbox a paper note which read: “N***** Tag—Federal N***** Hunting License.”

The note claimed to give “the holder permission to hunt day or night, with or without dogs.” A hand-drawn image of a person hanging from a tree also appeared on the note, along with the words “this is for you.”

Pryor’s mailbox was located in a secure space at the airport, accessible to United employees and others with company authorization.

“This case most centrally concerns the question of when an employer may be held liable for a hostile work environment created by an anonymous actor,” the appellate court said in its ruling.

“Given the severity of the threat, a reasonable jury could find that United’s response was neither prompt nor reasonably calculated to end the harassment,” said the court, which noted United supervisors failed to call police, even though police later said that the airline should have.

United also reportedly failed to notify its own Employee Service Center, a violation of United company policy.

“They did not inform corporate security of the racist message on the fliers previously discovered in the break room. They did not promptly install cameras or other monitoring devices. They did not provide Pryor with additional security or protective measures. They did not obtain fingerprints, do other forensics analysis, or interview co-workers,” the court said. “And they remarkably did not inform Pryor when their investigation closed, an event that occurred without management having sent any correspondence to employees to solicit information and/or put them on notice that the company was being vigilant in monitoring the workplace.”

The court noted the threat to Pryor was not the first racist incident reported at United’s IAD facility. In the 1990s, a co-worker asked Pryor about rumors that black United flight attendants based out of Dulles were working as prostitutes during Kuwait layovers. The rumors, of which United was reportedly aware, resurfaced in 2009 and informally investigated.

United was also reportedly aware that, just months before Pryor received the threat, an apartment advertisement appeared in the IAD United break room with a racist message that read: “No n****** need apply.”

Read the court ruling in its entirety here.

[Photo: United Airlines]

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