Legal Debacles: Halloween Costumes

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Brightly colored leaves falling from trees signal the arrival of October. Kids dressed up in Halloween costumes signal the month’s end. But children aren’t the only ones dressing up. Adults have fun with the holiday garb as well. Dressing up for Halloween at work happens quite often. It can be fun or, in some cases, fraught with horror, resulting in circumstances that are not quite what you’d expect.

Halloween Costume Pictures

An AM Law Daily article tells the story of a sexual harassment lawsuit, where pictures of a plaintiff in costume at a work Halloween party later came back to haunt her.

Plaintiff Kimberly Dahms was an employee of the Defendant, Cognex Corporation, a computer manufacturer. Dahms was hired in 1990 and by 1996, was Director of Customer Satisfaction. Dahms befriended John J. Rogers, who joined the company in 1991. He was a CPA and held several positions over time, including Chief Financial Officer. The two lived in the same town and sometimes carpooled to work. Although platonic, they had a friendly relationship and sometimes saw each other socially outside of work.

Dahms alleged that a few incidents with Rogers made her uncomfortable, but the two give conflicting reports regarding the events. In March 1997, the two went on a business trip to Japan. Dahms stated that at dinner one night, Rogers told her that he would have a role in her next promotion. She further alleged that later in the evening, he tried to push his way into her hotel room, but she did not let him in.

Between August 1998 and June 1999, Dahms filed a sexual harassment complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and a civil suit in state court. Rogers was fired in November 1998. Dahms was fired in June 2000. One of the plaintiff’s allegations was that Cognex created a sexually hostile work environment. Unfortunately for Dahms, the jury did not find her testimony that the work environment offended her credible. Instead, she appeared to embrace it. Part of this assessment was based on photographs of Dahms at the employee Halloween parties. One of her many provocative costumes was described as “a see-through Empire State Building.”

Halloween Costume as Transition

A recent article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that sometimes, a Halloween costume may be used by an employee to reveal their true identity. According to court records, on Halloween Day 2006, Vandy Beth Glenn arrived at work wearing a turtleneck sweater, knee-length skirt, boots, and tights. Glenn was sent home for dressing inappropriately. Two other co-workers who were dressed in costume were not sent home.

In 2005, when Glenn was hired as Legislative Editor for the Georgia General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Counsel, the perception was that Glenn was male. However, that same year, Glenn was diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder (GID) and was experiencing a strong and consistent female gender identity. In July 2007, Glenn notified her superiors that she planned to transition from male to female and would present herself as female at work. She was fired in October 2007.

In July 2008, Glenn sued Georgia General Assembly officials in federal court based on gender discrimination and medical condition. A federal judge recently ruled that Glenn be reinstated to her job.

What Employers Need to Know

While most Halloween costumes at work don’t provoke such extreme reactions or outcomes, employers still need to take note when planning Halloween celebrations for employees.

A majority of employees may find these celebrations fun, but others may deem them silly and a waste of time. Some employees may have religious beliefs that find the idea of Halloween offensive and may not want to participate.

Employers may want to look back and see if there were issues in the past. Were there any costumes that were offensive to some? Costumes that poke fun at racial, gender, or religious stereotypes may not be seen as humorous and could result in employer liability for discrimination, as an ICE Halloween party demonstrated.

Communicating what is acceptable in advance may help to reduce potential pitfalls. Employers may also need to discipline any employee who crosses a line. Yet not in a way that could be seen as discriminatory to further compound the problem.

Sources:

Ropes, Eckert Lawyers Remember Strange Halloween Costume Case, by Zach Lowe, October 29, 2009.

Kimberly Dahms vs. Cognex Corporation & Others.

Transgender woman fired by state gets her job back, by Christian Boone, August 3, 2010.

Glenn v. Brumby et. al., Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief

Federal Court Rules in Favor of Transgender Woman Represented by Lambda Legal After She Was Fired By Georgia General Assembly, July 6, 2010.