The plaintiff, who has anxiety and stress-related conditions, said he had explicitly asked his employer not to throw him a surprise birthday party–and ended up having a panic attack after they did anyway.
A Kentucky man will receive $450,000 in damages after his former employer threw him a surprise birthday party after being told that such an event could provoke him into a panic attack.
According to The Guardian, in August 2019, medical laboratory Gravity Diagnostics ignored Kevin Berling’s request to not celebrate his birthday.
Berling, says The Guardian, had earlier told his employer that he suffers from chronic stress and anxiety, and that any surprise could aggravate his condition.
Attorney Tony Bucher, who represented Berling throughout the lawsuit, said his client had even spoken to the party’s organizer.
However, the individual tasked with arranging Berling’s birthday party “flat-out forgot about his request” to shelve any and all party plans.
When Berling showed up for work on his birthday, the shock of the unexpected surprise allegedly provoked a panic attack.
Berling quickly retreated to his car, where he used breathing techniques to calm himself down.
Berling, adds The Guardian, ended up taking his lunch in the car. He also texted his employer, saying he was upset that he had been given a birthday party despite explicitly campaigning against one.
But when Berling went back to work the next day, he was “confronted and criticized” for his reaction.
“According to my client, [his managers] started reading him the Riot Act and accused him of stealing other co-workers’ joy,” Bucher told Link-NKY.
“This confrontation,” the lawsuit said, “triggered another panic attack.”
While Berling tried to use coping techniques to calm himself down, his co-workers interpreted Berling’s self-hugs as evidence he was “enraged and possibly about to get violent.”
“At the conclusion of this meeting and because plaintiff had a panic attack, plaintiff was sent home from work for the remainder of 8 and 9 August,” Bucher said.
Although Berling eventually apologized for his panic attacks, Gravity Diagnostics nonetheless sent him an email terminating his employment three days later.
Berling later filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination. Earlier this week, a judge awarded him $450,000 in damages, including “$120,000 in lost wages; $30,000 in future lost wages and benefits; and $300,000 for past, present and future mental pain and suffering, mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation, mortification and lost of self-esteem.”
Kenton County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Summe observed that Berling was ordinarily “able to perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodations” but “suffered adverse employment action because of [his] disability.”
A spokesperson for Gravity Diagnostics told The Guardian that the company believes Berling’s reaction constituted harassment against other employees and could be construed as threats of violence.
Gravity, said the spokesperson, plans to appeal the decision.