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An Unwanted Birthday Party Costs an Employer $450,000

An Unwanted Birthday Party Costs an Employer $450,000
Photo by Adi Goldstein / Unsplash

In 2019, Gravity Diagnostics employee Kevin Berling asked his office manager not to have a birthday party because he had an anxiety disorder. However, the manager did not inform Berling’s colleagues, who held a lunchtime celebration for him while the manager was away. When Berling saw the party, he avoided the event by eating lunch in his car.

Two supervisors met with Berling the following day, calling his behavior “somber” and questioning his decision. The meeting triggered a panic attack for Berling, who told his supervisors to stop talking. Berling’s face turned red, and he clenched his fists up against his chest, as a coping method, before he was asked to leave work for the day. Berling apologized for his panic attack shortly after the meeting.

Three days later, Gravity Diagnostics terminated Berling’s at-will employment on the basis that he had posed a threat in the meeting because his reaction and coping mechanism were construed as a violent outburst. The supervisors claimed they feared physical harm. Berling’s performance reviews before the incident had been outstanding, and he had never been disciplined or received a negative review.

Berling sued for disability discrimination, although Gravity Diagnostics claimed that he never disclosed his anxiety disorder to the company. On March 31, 2022, a jury awarded Berling $150,000 in lost wages plus $300,000 for emotional distress. Gravity Diagnostics is challenging the verdict.

Three key takeaways from this legal dispute:

  1. If you’re an employee suffering from a disability, such as anxiety disorders, disclose and discuss those issues with your supervisor and document the discussion in a follow-up email or memo;
  2. If you’re an employer and an employee does not want to attend a party or other nonwork-related event, he or she should be allowed to opt out; and
  3. If you're an employer, make sure you have standard operating procedures in place for communicating and documenting employee-related issues so that, when a supervisor is away, those covering for him or her are aware of them.