A jury in Kentucky recently awarded $450,000 to a worker who was fired when he experienced a panic attack after his employer threw him a workplace birthday party against his wishes. The jury rejected the employer’s assertion that the man did not alert the employer to his anxiety disorder and that his firing was based on intimidation of co-workers, not his disability.
Kevin Berling told his manager at Gravity Diagnostics that he did not want his birthday celebrated at work because it would cause him significant stress. His manager did not relay the information to the on-site Human Resources department, which kept a list of employees’ birthdays and was responsible for planning the parties.
When the company threw Berling a surprise party a few days later, he suffered a prolonged panic attack. The next day, he met with his managers to discuss the situation and had another panic attack. Shortly thereafter, Gravity Diagnostics fired him over concerns that he posed a threat to his co-workers’ safety, even though at no time during either panic attack did he exhibit hostility toward his colleagues. Berling never received a negative performance review nor had he been disciplined by the company prior to his termination.
Berling sued Gravity for disability discrimination and retaliation under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, which mirrors the language of the federal law. A jury concluded that Gravity failed to grant Berling a reasonable accommodation for his disability and took adverse employment action against him because of his anxiety disorder. It awarded him $150,000 in lost wages and benefits plus $300,000 for suffering and embarrassment.
While employers often think about discrimination in terms of negative acts, it is important to realize that even benign acts can violate state and federal anti-discrimination laws. In addition to claims for disability discrimination, birthday celebrations may give rise to claims for age discrimination or religious discrimination by workers whose religious faiths ban secular celebrations.
Best practice is to check with an employee before organizing any sort of celebration where the employee will be the focal point. It is also crucial that supervisors are trained to communicate an employee’s request for accommodations to include exclusion from workplace events with management or human resources, if applicable. Employees should make their concerns regarding such workplace events clear to management and should state clearly that they live with a recognized disability or believe it violates their religious beliefs. Please reach out to us if you need guidance on this or other employment issues.