Officers may be Liable for Employer's False Arrest Prank

May 22, 2006 ( - The 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court's grant of summary judgment to Albuquerque police officers who staged the false arrest of an employee at the request for a prank by Southwest Airlines.

In its opinion, the appellate court determined that the officers’ actions of approaching Marcie Fuerschbach, informing her of an outstanding warrant, handcuffing her and leading her to a point 15 feet away could be found by a jury to constitute an unreasonable seizure. Though Fuerschbach was aware of the practice of the airlines to play a prank on employees successfully completing their initial probationary periods, the court found that, in the scenario she described, it was reasonable that she believed she was not free to leave.

While the district court found that the officers had a good faith belief that their actions were lawful because they only “briefly restrain[ed] Plaintiff as part of a prank at the request of SWA,” the appellate court disagreed, saying the actions constituted false imprisonment. According to the opinion, “Neither the brevity of the seizure nor its characterization as a prank enable the officers to prevail on summary judgment.”

Finally, the court also reversed the lower court’s decision for the officers on Fuerschbach’s claim of assault and battery, finding that handcuffing her constituted bodily contact that offended her sense of personal dignity.

Southwest Airlines traditionally played a prank on its employees upon their completion of an initial probationary period. Fuerschbach’s supervisor had asked the officers to stage the arrest and assured them she would be fine with it. However, when they approached her at a crowded ticket counter and told her that a background check had revealed an outstanding arrest warrant, she became very upset and cried.

At one point, Fuerschbach had asked the officers if this was a joke, to which neither replied. After being handcuffed and led to an elevator 15 feet away from the counter, a coworker shouted congratulations and everyone applauded. Fuerschbach remained upset, crying all day until told to go home.

She sought treatment for emotional distress and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She sued the company, her supervisors, the officers and the city of Albuquerque. A district court granted summary judgment to all parties, and granted qualified immunity to the officers.

While the appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision that the Worker’s Compensation Act provided the exclusive remedy for claims against her employer, it disagreed with granting immunity to the officers.

Citing a previous court decision, the appellate court warns, “One who plays dangerous practical jokes on others takes the risk that his victims may not appreciate the humor of his conduct and may not take it in good part.”

The decision in Fuerschbach v. Southwest Airlines Co. is here .