Beware of Office Birthday Parties!
Written by: Monica Munin, Esq.
One Kentucky employer got a nasty surprise after inadvertently hosting a birthday party on behalf of an employee who requested that his birthday not be observed due to social anxiety. Kevin Berling, a former employee of Gravity Diagnostics, sued the Company after he was fired for behavior, he exhibited in response to an unwanted birthday party.
Berling had approached his office manager to request that the Company not throw him an office birthday party. He explained that he had an anxiety disorder as well as a propensity for panic attacks that becomes exacerbated when he is the center of attention. Berling also indicated he had accumulated “bad memories” associated with his birthday that made parties upsetting to him. The Office Manager inadvertently forgot to pass on the information to the rest of the company and was out of the office on Berling’s birthday. As a result, a birthday party, including balloons and a banner, was set up for Berling in the office break room. When Berling heard about the party, he suffered a severe panic attack and went to his car to hide from the celebration. The next day Berling was called into a meeting to discuss the incident where his managers allegedly scolded and belittled him for his reaction to the unwanted birthday party. Berling indicated one manager accused him of “stealing his co-worker’s joy.” The meeting led to another panic attack with Berling clenching and unclenching his fists as instructed by his therapist to try and mitigate his panic symptoms. His behavior further alarmed his managers who asked him to immediately leave the property and assumed he was on the verge of a violent outburst. Later that week Berling was terminated “because of the events of the previous week.” Berling then brought suit alleging discrimination under a Kentucky disability law similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and retaliation for exercising his rights. The Company asserted that Berling had been fired due to a legitimate fear of violence rather than because of his anxiety. A jury sided with Berling and found that the Company violated Berling’s disability rights, awarding him $450,000. The jury essentially held that Berling’s reaction was a reasonable mitigating measure to control his panic attacks and that the manager’s assumption Berling was on the verge of violence was discriminatory. Berling’s attorney, Anthony Bucher, summarized the incident to the British Broadcasting Company by stating:
“He had a panic attack. That is all. And, because representatives from Gravity Diagnostics did not understand his panic response and were unnerved by his response, they assumed he was a threat. Assuming that people with mental health issues are dangerous without any evidence of violent behavior is discriminatory.”
The incident serves as a reminder to employers that mental disabilities can qualify for protection under disability discrimination statutes and that employees are not required to file a formal request for accommodations in order to be entitled to those protections. Here, the jury found that Berling’s request was an exercise of his right to a reasonable accommodation under Kentucky disability law even though he did not explicitly refer to the law or use the phrase “reasonable accommodation.” Federal and Virginia state disability statutes have also been interpreted by courts as providing expansive rights to eligible employees. Employees do not need to use specific “buzz words” in order to be entitled to protections under the statutes. It is vitally important that employers ensure their supervisors and staff are familiar with employee rights under disability law and that they receive training regarding what a request for an accommodation can look like. Further, training should be sure to include general information regarding mental disabilities. While the facts in Berling’s case are unique, we can be sure that disability cases involving mental health disorders are likely to continue to evolve as courts attain a better understanding of the nature of such disabilities.
Need supervisor training? Unsure about a disability matter or other employment law issue? Contact Monica Munin, Esq. at email@example.com for answers.
This blog post is not intended to provide legal advice or substitute for the advice of legal counsel with respect to specific facts and situations. See disclaimer