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NOVA Legal Beat: What to do About Coworker Pranks?

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Editor’s Note: This sponsored column is written by Mathew B. Tully of Tully Rinckey PLLC, an Arlington firm that specializes in federal employment and labor law, security clearance proceedings, and military law.

Q. Can a co-worker’s pranks create a hostile work environment?

A. While the people who perform or witness pranks may find them to be hilarious, these rascally acts often end up humiliating the pranked person. Some of the factors that need to be considered to determine whether office pranks can rise to the level of unlawful hostile work environment include the frequency and severity of the acts and why a particular individual became the target of pranksters.

In cases where there are multiple pranksters or multiple victims of different demographics, it could be difficult to prove the mischievous behavior created a hostile work environment in violation of anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA).

The case Mason v. Wyeth, Inc. (2006), for example, involved a plaintiff with a hearing impairment who worked in an office in which several employees — including himself — routinely committed pranks against one another. One co-worker had a penchant for sneaking up to other employees, including the plaintiff, and startling them by poking or pinching them or making loud noises. A doctor later told the plaintiff, who was suffering from depression, that this prank playing was exacerbating his mental health problems.

However, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Mason rejected the plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim because there was insufficient evidence that this sneaky co-worker pranked the plaintiff because of his disability. The court noted that although this co-worker “may have led the pack in the prank-playing shenanigans that developed among the men,” he was not the only participant and the plaintiff was not “his sole target.” The court said, “the work environment in the Department was permeated with the perhaps sophomoric and juvenile behavior of its employees.”

It may be easier to establish a hostile work environment claim when the pranks target a particular demographic and the pranksters use language reflecting their animosity toward the victim’s race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or age. The case, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Xerxes, Inc. (2011), involved a class of black individuals who had repeatedly been subjected to racial slurs and pranks. Some pranks involved unknown coworkers turning off bathroom lights, throwing wet paper towels, and tampering with and hiding a toolbox.

Finding that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the employer had been notified about the harassment and had failed to stop it, the 4th Circuit vacated a lower court’s ruling dismissing the case and remanded it for further proceedings. In a concurring opinion, a circuit judge said, “The record also contains evidence that anonymous pranks were played on them and vile anonymous threats made to them. No one should be subjected to such abuse in the workplace.”

Pranks, especially when they are driven by discriminatory motives, are not funny. Consult with an experienced employment law attorney of you believe you are the victim of discrimination based on race, sex, color, national origin, religion, disability, or age.

Mathew B. Tully is the founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. Located in Arlington, Va. and Washington, D.C., Tully Rinckey PLLC’s attorneys practice federal employment law, military law, and security clearance representation. To speak with an attorney, call 703-525-4700 or to learn more visit fedattorney.com. 

The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

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