People ask me all the time how I come up with ideas for columns, especially columns that highlight human folly.

I usually paraphrase H.L. Mencken and say that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. I also add that no newspaper reporter or lawyer will run short of business as long as they keep that in mind.

Today’s example features a Halloween party, a hypnotist and a very ill-conceived gag.

So, a nonprofit agency that works with lesbian, gay and transgender clients, helping them deal with “mental health, substance abuse and sexual health” issues, threw a Halloween party for employees last year. They hired a hypnotist as entertainment.

What could go wrong?

If anyone would be cautious about inappropriate behavior when it comes to sex, it would be an agency whose mission is to protect its clients from exactly that, right?

Not according to a lawsuit filed in Hennepin County District Court by three former employees of PRIDE Institute Inc. of Eden Prairie.

As it turns out, the “entertainment” went a tad awry.

The hypnotist, who goes by the stage name Freddie Justice, started the evening by telling the employees that he recognized it was a work event and that they didn’t have to worry about, for example, being hypnotized to “cluck like a chicken,” according to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Andrew Marshall.

No, it was much worse.

For nearly an hour and a half, Freddie Justice hypnotized volunteers and got them to do rather innocuous acts, such as pretending they were melting or playing a musical instrument.

Finally the hypnotist approached the agency’s director of human resources and asked for permission to conduct a final trick. The director told the hypnotist to proceed with his magic.

Freddie Justice then selected three women volunteers, hypnotized them and proceeded to tell them they were going to experience an orgasm. In front of their co-workers and the CEO of the agency.

The women indeed responded to the command, one at a time. At no point did anyone try to stop the event, said Marshall.

The women were later traumatized by the embarrassment, Marshall said. One has settled with PRIDE, two others are continuing the suit, alleging invasion of privacy, sexual harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Rick Pliszka, chief executive of PRIDE, issued the following statement:

“We deny the allegations raised in this lawsuit and intend to defend this case vigorously. Due to the pending litigation, we cannot comment further but eagerly await our opportunity to dispute these claims in court.”

PRIDE’s lawyer argues in a motion to dismiss the claim that “allegations pertaining to this single incident of playacting during the hypnotist’s performance in which [they] volunteered to participate, while perhaps personally embarrassing, are not legally actionable.”

PRIDE also argues that there was no pattern of harassment, and that the HR director was fired shortly after the event.

PRIDE’s motion acknowledges that the judgment of the hypnotist and the HR director “certainly could have been better,” but that the agency does not have liability because the hypnotist was not an employee.

Marshall said recordings show that the hypnotist repeatedly assured the audience that they were “safe, secure,” so they would not hesitate to participate. He said that Pliszka promised to investigate after one of the women complained, but that that was strange because Pliszka “had a front-row seat” and failed to stop the show.

Some questioned whether the women could really be made to express an orgasm without their will. Marshall argues that state law deems hypnosis to be so effective that witnesses can’t differentiate between real and suggested memories.

In the days following the event, the women were subject to jokes and teasing until Pliszka sent out a memo telling employees to refrain from discussing the incident. The employees suffered physical and mental duress due to the incident and teasing, the suit says.

When one of the victims of the prank quit, PRIDE added insult to injury by denying her unemployment benefits. In siding with the employee, an employment law judge issued a markedly harsh opinion on PRIDE’s handling of the issue.

“The human resource director’s consent to the orgasm event; the chief officer’s intentional failure to prevent the actions or conduct of a sexual nature and the hypnotist’s directed humiliation of [the plaintiff] in front of subordinates, co-workers and other management and his failure to provide a reasonable good faith response” gave the woman good reason to quit, the judge ruled.

You know you’re in a tough spot as a company when a lawsuit against you contains the phrase “orgasm event.”

As the holiday work party season approaches, this case should serve as a warning. If an entertainer you hire promises not to make you cluck like a chicken, you might want to ask a few more questions.

 

Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin