Jury awards fired man $450,000 for unwanted office birthday party

A Kentucky man who was fired days after having a workplace panic attack at an unwanted birthday party was awarded $450,000 by a jury last month for lost wages and emotional distress .

The man, Kevin Berling, had been working at a medical laboratory, Gravity Diagnostics in Covington, Ky., for about 10 months when he asked the office manager not to throw him a birthday party because he was suffering from an anxiety disorder, according to a lawsuit filed in Kenton County Circuit Court in Kentucky.

Mr Berling’s lawyer, Tony Bucher, said the party had been planned by other employees while the office manager was away and the situation quickly spiraled out of control.

Mr Berling had a panic attack after learning of the planned lunchtime celebration, which was to include birthday wishes from colleagues and a banner decorating the break room. Mr. Berling chose to spend his lunch break in his car instead.

The next day, Mr. Berling had a panic attack during a meeting with two supervisors who confronted him about his “gloomy behavior”, Mr. Bucher said. He was fired three days later in an email suggesting that Mr. Berling posed a threat to the safety of his colleagues.

In a court filing, the company said it fired Mr Berling because he was ‘violent’ at the meeting and scared off supervisors, who sent him home for the day, took his key fob and told the security staff it was not allowed. return.

A month after the meeting, in September 2019, Mr. Berling sued the company for disability discrimination.

After a two-day trial, a jury returned a verdict on March 31, finding that Mr. Berling suffered adverse employment action on the basis of a disability. The jurors awarded him $150,000 in lost wages and benefits and $300,000 for pain, embarrassment and loss of self-esteem.

The judge handling the case has yet to issue a judgment on the verdict, which has been reported by LINK nkya local news site.

John Maley, an attorney for Gravity Diagnostics, said on Saturday the company would file post-trial motions challenging the verdict on legal grounds and claiming that a juror violated court orders regarding obtaining information outside the courtroom. court case.

Mr Maley said the case did not meet the standard of a disability claim because Mr Berling never disclosed his anxiety disorder to the company and did not meet the legal threshold to be considered as having a disability.

Mr Maley said the company had the right to fire Mr Berling – a lab technician whose employment status was at will, meaning he could be fired for any legal reason – because that he clenched his fists, his face turned red, and he ordered his supervisors to be quiet during the meeting, scaring them.

“They were absolutely scared of physical injury at the time,” Julie Brazil, founder and COO of Gravity Diagnostics, said Saturday. “They’re both still shaken up about it today.”

Mr Bucher said the reaction described by the company was Mr Berling’s effort to calm down during a panic attack after one of the supervisors criticized his reaction to the party.

Mr. Berling asked them to stop talking and used physical coping techniques, including a move that Mr. Bucher described as having his fists clenched but ‘up around his chest, sort of closed , almost hugging herself”.

Mr. Berling was sent home for the rest of the working day and the following day. At home a few hours after the meeting, he texted one of the supervisors to apologize for his panic attack, according to the complaint.

Prior to this week, Mr. Bucher said, Mr. Berling had received “outstanding” monthly reviews. The company said he had never received a negative review or been disciplined, according to court documents.

Mr. Berling is happy in his new job at a school, Mr. Bucher said, and although his panic attacks increased in frequency after this week in 2019, they gradually diminished.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States, and they affect about 40 million adults in the country each year, according to the American Anxiety and Depression Association.

Bisma Anwara mental health counselor for the therapy app Talkspace, said in an email that it was a good idea for people with anxiety disorders and panic attacks to discuss these issues with a supervisor at work who could be a source of support when the employee is in difficulty.

Ms Anwar said work anxiety could be the result of workload as well as social pressures.

“Social anxiety can also kick in in the workplace when interaction with managers and colleagues becomes expected,” Ms Anwar said. “If an employee is uncomfortable and feels anxious while hosting a birthday party for themselves or attending a celebration for others, they should be allowed to opt out.”

Lance B. Holton