Monday, April 18, 2022

Jury awards $450,000 to employee fired over unwanted birthday party

Kevin Berling, a 10-month employee of Gravity Diagnostics, made a simple request of the manager of his office —"Please don't throw me a birthday party; I have an anxiety disorder."

What happened next spiraled into a lawsuit that lasted more than two and half years and ended late last month with a $450,000 verdict for the employee.

The employee, Kevin Berling, suffered a panic attack when he learned that his co-workers had planned a lunchtime party for his birthday. Berling skipped the party and spent his lunch hour in his car. He suffered yet another panic next the day when two co-workers confronted him about his "somber attitude." Gravity fired him three days later, telling him it was "because of the events of the previous week."

Gravity claimed it fired Berling because he became violent during that post-birthday meeting by clenching his fist, and scared by employees by telling them to be quiet. The jury disagreed, concluding that the termination was disability discrimination and retaliation. 

The headline grabs your attention — $450K for an employee who didn't want to attend his birthday party. But behind that headline is an employer that appears to have made a legal misstep. Based on what I read, an employee with a legitimate protected disability (anxiety disorder) lost his job because of that disorder. Further, I see nothing to suggest that this employee, despite his clenched fists and vocal objections, rose to the level of a direct threat to justify this termination.

So when an employee tells you that he or she can't attend a social function because of an anxiety disorder listen to them. Take them seriously. Accommodate if it all possible. And don't fire them as a result.