A Kentucky man has been awarded US$450,000 ($612,000) in a lawsuit against his former company, which he alleged had wrongly reprimanded him for failing to participate in an office birthday party.
The plaintiff, Kevin Berling, claimed the unwanted birthday party at Gravity Diagnostics caused a series of panic attacks that adversely affected his mental health.
Furthermore, he said the company discriminated against him based on a disability.
A jury awarded him a total of US$450,000, which included US$300,000 for emotional distress and US$150,000 in lost wages following a two-day trial at the end of March.
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According to the lawsuit filed in Kentucky’s Kenton County, Berling had asked his manager to not celebrate his birthday at work as it normally does for employees at the company.
Berling suffers from anxiety disorders and had been at the company for only nine months when he told his office manager a party could potentially result in a panic attack and would bring back uncomfortable childhood memories.
However Gravity Diagnostics, which conducts Covid-19 tests, threw him a surprise party anyway.
This prompted the subsequent lawsuit, weighing whether Berling’s response to the event reflected a panic attack — or a violent outburst.
A spiralling situation
Berling’s lawyer, Tony Bucher, told the court that in August 2019 the company went ahead with the birthday party, which was planned by other employees while the office manager was away.
The situation quickly spiralled out of control.
After learning about the planned lunchtime office birthday party — which involved a banner decorating the break room and a collection of colleagues — Berling experienced a panic attack and retreated to his car to eat his lunch.
The next day, Berling had another panic attack in a meeting with two supervisors who confronted him about his “somber behavior,” court filings said.
He was fired three days later in an email that hinted Berling posed a threat to his co-workers’ safety.
In a court filing, Gravity Diagnostics said it had fired the former employee because he was “violent” in the meeting and had scared the supervisors.
The supervisors had sent him home for the day, taken his key fob and told security personnel he was not allowed to return, the filing said.
A month after that meeting, in September 2019, Berling sued the company for disability discrimination.
His lawsuit claimed that Berling was “confronted and criticised” at the meeting with his supervisors, where he was accused of “stealing his co-workers joy” and “being a little girl”.
After a two-day trial, a jury reached a verdict on March 31, concluding that Berling had experienced an adverse employment action because of a disability.
Gravity Diagnostics chief operating office, Julie Brazil, told local Kentucky news outlet Link NKY that the company stands by its decision to terminate its former employee because he violated a “workplace violence policy”.
“My employees were the victims in this case, not the plaintiff,” Brazil said, adding that the company is challenging the verdict and is actively considering an appeal.
However Berling’s attorney told the BBC there “was absolutely no evidence” that he posed a threat to anyone at the company that would warrant being fired.
“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,” Bucher said.
“Assuming that people with mental health issues are dangerous without any evidence of any violent behaviour is discriminatory.”
Reflecting on the case, Bisma Anwar, a mental health counselor for the therapy app Talkspace told the New York Times social anxiety can be triggered in a workplace when individuals faced social pressure from co-workers.
It is a good idea for people who experience anxiety disorders and panic attacks to discuss those issues with a supervisor at work, Anwar said, as they can be a source of support when the employee is struggling.
“If an employee is uncomfortable and feels anxious by having a birthday party in their honor or taking part in a celebration for others, then they should be allowed to opt out from it.”
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, according to Beyond Blue.
On average, one in four people – one in three women and one in ﬁve men – will experience anxiety at some stage in their life.