Terminated employee awarded $450,000 after unwanted birthday party

Discrimination lawsuit: Event caused 'series of panic attacks', unrepentant employer accused of not understanding mental health issues

Terminated employee awarded $450,000 after unwanted birthday party

A court recently awarded $450,000 to an employee who sued his company after it threw a surprise birthday party that he clearly didn’t want. 

Kevin Berling, who suffers from anxiety disorders, filed the lawsuit in Kentucky’s Kenton County. The employer, Gravity Diagnostics, threw an “unwanted birthday party” in August 2019 at its workplace. According to the celebrant, the event “caused him a series of panic attacks.” The company denied that it committed any wrongdoing, but the employee alleged that the company discriminated against him based on a disability.

According to a BBC News report, the employee had asked his manager not to celebrate his birthday at work as it normally does for its employees, “as it could potentially result in a panic attack.” He also said that such an event would bring back “uncomfortable childhood memories.”

Despite the employee’s wishes, the employer still threw a surprise party that triggered a panic attack. “He quickly left the party and finished his lunch in his car,” BBC News reported.

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The following day, the employee was called to a meeting where he was “confronted and criticized.” According to him, the company accused him of “stealing his co-workers’ joy” and “being a little girl.” The “tense meeting” triggered a second panic attack.

“At this point, he starts employing other coping techniques that he’s worked on for years with his therapist,” the employee’s lawyer Tony Bucher said. “The way he described it is he started hugging himself and asked them to please stop.” The employer then decided to send him home for a few days.

Soon after, the employer fired him over concerns about “workplace safety.” Consequently, the employee protested his dismissal and said it was discrimination based on his disability, arguing that there was “unfair retaliation” against him for his request.

As of today, the company said that it’s “standing by its decision” to terminate the employment of the said employee. The employer’s chief operating officer Julie Brazil told Link NKY that the company was maintaining its position that he committed a “workplace violence policy.”

“My employees were the victims in this case, not the plaintiff,” Brazil said.

Meanwhile, Bucher said that there “was absolutely no evidence that he posed a threat to anyone [in the company] that would warrant being fired,” he told BBC.

“He had a panic attack. That is all. And, because representatives from [his employer] did not understand his panic response and were unnerved by his response, they assumed he was a threat,” Bucher said. “Assuming that people with mental health issues are dangerous without any evidence of any violent behaviour is discriminatory,” he added.

The jury awarded Berling $450,000, including $300,000 for emotional distress and $150,000 in lost wages. The company is reportedly going to challenge the court’s decision.

The case is an important lesson for HR leaders about respecting the boundaries and limitations set by their employees. It’s also a stark reminder that not every gesture would fit everybody’s emotional needs and preferences, even those with seemingly good intentions.

Learn more at Employment Law Masterclass California.

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