Real-life “super troopers” in Southwest Airlines prank

Fuerschbach v. Southwest Airlines has to be one of the most fun cases I’ve read in a while…

Several supervisors at Southwest Airlines convinced two Albuquerque police officers to stage an arrest of Marcie Fuerschbach, a Southwest Airlines employee, as part of an elaborate prank that included actual handcuffing and apparent arrest. This was a “joke gone bad,” and turned out to be anything but funny, as Fuerschbach allegedly suffered serious psychological injuries as a result of the prank. She sued the officers and the City of Albuquerque under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging violations of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Fuerschbach also asserted claims for various state torts against the officers, the city, her supervisors, and Southwest Airlines.

The full story after the jump…

Southwest prides itself on being a “fun-loving, spirited company.” This lighthearted image extends from marketing and customer relations into the company’s corporate culture. As part of this fun-loving atmosphere, newly hired employees who have successfully completed an initial probationary period often find themselves subject to a prank commemorating the occasion. In one instance, an employee was led onto an airplane, the doors were sealed, and the employee was flown to Dallas. Another employee was dressed in a hula skirt and made to perform a hula dance for customers. Aware of this tradition, Fuerschbach knew it was possible that her colleagues would play a prank on her at the end of her probationary period.

Fuerschbach’s supervisor, Tina Marie Tapia, and other customer service supervisors had discussed various pranks to commemorate Fuerschbach’s successful completion of probation. Because Tapia had once been subjected to a similar prank, and had thought the experience amusing, she suggested a mock arrest. The others agreed. On the day of the incident, one of the supervisors called the Albuquerque police department and requested that officers come to the Southwest counter. When Officers Duane Hoppe and Eldon Martinez arrived at the ticket counter, the supervisors told them of the plan to arrest Fuerschbach as a celebratory prank. The officers, who were employed by the City of Albuquerque’s City Aviation Department and detailed to the Sunport, asked if Fuerschbach “would be okay with it,” and Tapia assured them that she would. With the assistance of the supervisors, the officers developed and executed the plan for staging the arrest.

Fuerschbach was working at a ticket counter crowded with customers when the two uniformed and armed police officers approached her. One of the officers ordered Fuerschbach to go with him to answer some questions, and proceeded to escort her to the end of the ticket counter. Once there, the other officer informed Fuerschbach that during the course of performing her background check, the City Aviation Department discovered an outstanding warrant for her arrest. The officers asked Fuerschbach if she had ever been arrested before, and she replied that she had not. When she began to explain that there must have been some mistake, and that there were no outstanding warrants, the officers interrupted her and demanded that she take off her badges and turn them in. Fuerschbach complied and handed her badges to Tapia, who was standing close by. Hoppe and Martinez then asked if Fuerschbach had anyone to “bail her out,” and she responded tearfully that she hoped Tapia would. After asking for a tissue to dry her tears, Fuerschbach asked if the arrest were a joke. Both officers refused to respond. Instead, Hoppe asked if Fuerschbach had any unpaid traffic citations.

The officers then placed Fuerschbach’s hands behind her back and handcuffed her tightly. A crowd of employees and customers formed to watch the unfolding arrest. One of the officers said to Fuerschbach, “[w]e don’t want to embarrass you anymore so we’ll take you to the elevator so we don’t have to walk in front of all those people.” Fuerschbach continued to cry. The officers led Fuerschbach in handcuffs fifteen feet to the elevator, at which point someone jumped out and yelled, “congratulations for being off probation.” The officers removed the handcuffs and people began to clap. Fuerschbach, however, continued to cry. Later that day, she was found in the break room weeping and was sent home. As a result of her distress, Fuerschbach began seeing a psychologist for treatment. The psychologist diagnosed Fuerschbach as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”).

Although the district judge let the officers get away based on qualified immunity, the court of appeals reversed this decision and sent the case back down. The new trial will deal with her tort claims against the police and the City of Albuquerque, and her 1983 claims against the police; Southwest won’t be liable because the injuries are covered by workers’ compensation, and the city won’t be liable under civil rights law because it had nothing to do with the officers’ actions.

Fun times.