Employee wins $670,000 over unwanted office birthday party

No one really likes being sung Happy Birthday by a crowd of colleagues, but for one man, the ordeal lead to a US$450,000 ($670,000) lawsuit against his employer, Kentucky medical laboratory Gravity Diagnostics.

According to NBC News, Kentucky man Kevin Berling asked his employer not to arrange any in-office birthday celebrations because it would trigger a panic attack for him.

But when Berling entered the staff room on August 7, 2019, he was greeted with a surprise birthday celebration.

According to court documents, he suffered a panic attack and fled to his car. While finishing his lunch in his vehicle, he sent a text to his manager expressing his dismay over the company's failure to acknowledge his request.

According to the lawsuit, the following day Berling was "confronted and criticised" over his birthday party reaction.

"This confrontation triggered another panic attack," the lawsuit says. "At the conclusion of this meeting and because plaintiff had a panic attack, plaintiff was sent home from work for the remainder of August 8 and August 9."

Two days later, Berling received a letter terminating his employment "because of the events of the previous week," the lawsuit says.

Berling sued the company, alleging disability discrimination and retaliation.

Gravity Diagnostics founder and chief operating officer Julie Brazil told Kentucky news website, Link NKY, Berling was fired for violating a "workplace violence policy". She said the company stands by its decision and told the website: "My employees de-escalated the situation to get the plaintiff out of the building as quickly as possible while removing his access to the building, alerting me and sending out security reminders to ensure he could not access the building, which is exactly what they were supposed to do."

But court documents show that a jury gathered on March 31 found Berling suffered an "adverse employment action" because of his anxiety disability and awarded him US$450,000.

Berling's lawyer, Tony Bucher, said in a statement that his client posed no threat.

"I think the significance for employers is that they need to understand that they shouldn't make assumptions about individuals with mental health issues. Kevin was an exceptional employee that went above and beyond for his employer and if they would have taken a step back it would have been clear that he did not present any danger at all."

This article was first published by the NZ Herald and is republished here with permission.