This is one of the most bizarre lawsuits we’ve ever heard of. But is it a case of justice for a wronged employee? Or a frivolous claim being rewarded with a LOT of money?!
A man named Kevin Berling sued his former employer, a Kentucky medical lab called Gravity Diagnostics for disability discrimination after they fired him, but the disability in this case is a controversial one. And the inciting incident is, of all things, a birthday party.
According to Berling’s lawsuit, he specifically requested that the office’s designated birthday party organizer NEVER throw a party to celebrate his birthday. He made it clear he suffered from an anxiety disorder, and that such an event would be very triggering for him due to bad childhood memories. However, on August 7, 2019, “the person who was responsible for the birthday parties who he talked to flat-out forgot about his request” and threw him a surprise party. It went about as badly as you might imagine…
Just as he warned, Berling suffered a panic attack, eventually leaving the area to practice breathing techniques to calm himself down and eating his lunch alone in his car. He made clear he didn’t believe the party organizer had intended to antagonize him, she “just forgot.” But the problem was, things only escalated from there.
The next morning, according to his lawsuit, Berling was “confronted and criticized” for his reaction. His managers “started reading him the riot act and accused him of stealing other co-workers’ joy,” according to attorney Tony Bucher. Co-workers apparently were upset by his coping mechanisms, such as “hugging himself,” and walked away in fear. Bucher says:
“The way [they] say it, they believed he was enraged and possibly about to get violent.”
Unsurprisingly, this new confrontation caused another panic attack. Berling was sent home for the rest of the day and for the next day, which was a Friday. Berling, the lawsuit claims, apologized for the panic attacks.
But instead of everyone making special accommodations, the managers chose to fire Berling, sending him an email over the weekend “informing him that he was being terminated because of the events of the previous week.”
Well, last week Berling won his lawsuit. Kenton circuit court judge Patricia Summe agreed with the plaintiff’s claim, ruling that he had a legitimate disability through which he “was able to perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodations” — but that he “suffered an adverse employment action because of that disability.”
Berling was awarded a whopping $450,000! Nearly half a mil! According to court docs that breaks down to “$120,000 in lost wages and benefits; $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 loss of self-esteem.”
Man, that is a lot of money for humiliation…
But the company is doubling down in the wake of the legal loss. Julie Brazil, chief operating officer, says the other “employees were the victims in this case, not the plaintiff.” She told Link NKY that Berling’s outburst frightening her employees was itself a form of violence:
“As an employer who puts our employee safety first, we have a zero-tolerance policy and we stand by our decision to terminate the plaintiff for his violation of our workplace violence policy.”
Wow. That feels like a stretch… unless we’re not hearing the full extent of his reaction? Hmm… Brazil says Gravity Diagnostics will appeal the ruling — and warns this will set a dangerous precedent in which all types of workplace violence that aren’t physical violence are rewarded.
But Bucher says his client never demonstrated any violent behavior:
“They made assumptions that he was dangerous based off of his disability and not off of any evidence that he was violent.”
What do YOU think of this unusual case, Perezcious paralegals?!
[Image via The Office/YouTube.]