In 2019, a Kentucky man experienced a panic attack after his employer threw him a workplace birthday party against his wishes. It then fired him for his reaction.
Last month, a jury awarded him $450,000 in damages.
Kevin Berling, who lives with an anxiety disorder, told his manager at Gravity Diagnostics, a medical laboratory in Covington, Ky., that he did not want his birthday celebrated at work because it would cause him significant stress.
The company forgot about his request and held a surprise party five days later, according to the lawsuit. This caused Berling to have an anxiety attack. The next day, he met with his managers to discuss the situation and had another panic attack. He was told to leave work afterward.
"They started giving [Berling] a pretty hard time for his response to the birthday celebration, actually accusing him of stealing his co-workers' joy," Tony Bucher, Berling's lawyer, told TV news outlet WKRC.
In an e-mail three days later, Gravity Diagnostics fired him over concerns that he posed a threat to his co-workers' safety. Berling had never received a negative performance review nor had he been disciplined by the company prior to his termination, according to court documents.
Berling sued the employer for disability discrimination and retaliation.
On March 31, jurors concluded that Berling experienced an adverse employment action because of a disability. The jury awarded him $150,000 in lost wages and benefits as well as $300,000 for suffering, embarrassment and loss of self-esteem.
Did the Company Violate the Law?
Fernanda Anzek, managing director of HR and diversity, equity and inclusion services for HR solutions company Insperity in Houston, said Berling was engaging in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) interactive process when he told Gravity Diagnostics that celebrating his birthday would trigger a panic attack.
Conditions that significantly limit a person's daily activity, such as chronic stress or an anxiety disorder, are typically covered by the ADA.
"The company did not accommodate the employee's request as required under the ADA," Anzek said. "Even though a party is not related to the employee's job, it is an event that takes place at work. And employers still have the same obligation to accommodate a reasonable request."
Andrew Gordon, an attorney with law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said the lawsuit wouldn't have happened had the company respected the employee's reasonable wish to not have his birthday celebrated by others.
"This is the type of situation that just eats at HR professionals and employment law attorneys," Gordon said. "It's a textbook what-not-to-do scenario in terms of how to handle an employee who asks to be left out of certain nonperformance-related social functions at work for legitimate, and potentially legally protected, reasons."
Previous reports by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) suggested that employers should not arrange a birthday celebration without first asking if the employee is comfortable with it. Some companies even ask this question during onboarding.
A seemingly innocuous workplace birthday celebration could also spawn lawsuits about age and religious discrimination. For example, an employer could be sued if it holds a party for a worker who is a Jehovah's Witness, a religion that doesn't celebrate birthdays.
"If this was something different, like an important team meeting that happened every week and during which important work-related information was discussed, we would possibly be having a different conversation," Gordon said. "But not over a two-minute birthday celebration."
Destigmatizing Mental Health Problems
Mental illness has long been stigmatized in the U.S. The Mayo Clinic indicated that stigma can lead to bullying, physical violence or harassment in the workplace, which can compromise a company's culture as well as its recruitment and retention efforts.
Anzek implored companies to create a work environment that welcomes openness, acceptance and transparency. Business leaders openly discussing their own mental health problems can help create such an atmosphere.
"When people in positions of authority talk about their own mental health challenges, it normalizes these conversations for everybody around them," Anzek explained. "It's also important for managers to prioritize their own well-being because it shows employees that self-care is both encouraged and expected."
Read about the mental health and wellness initiative spearheaded by SHRM, the SHRM Foundation and mental health education site Psych Hub to build effective mental health strategies in the workplace.