US man awarded $612,000 by jury over unwanted office birthday party
A jury in Kentucky, U.S. awarded a man US$450,000 (S$612,000) after his colleagues sprung a surprise birthday party on him, something which he said he did not want, The New York Times (NYT) reported.
In 2019, Kevin Berling was working at medical laboratory Gravity Diagnostics in the city of Covington, Kentucky.
He told his office manager that he had an anxiety disorder, and asked that the manager refrain from throwing him a birthday party.
However, when the office manager was away, other employees planned a lunchtime celebration for him and surprised him on his birthday, according to NBC News.
Berling had a panic attack, quickly left and spent his lunch break in his car instead. He also texted his manager, as he was upset that the company did not accommodate his request.
The next day, Berling had another panic attack in a meeting with two supervisors, who had confronted him about his "sombre behaviour".
He was sent home. Berling texted one of the supervisors about two hours later to apologise for his panic attack.
He was then fired by e-mail three days later. The e-mail also suggested that Berling posed a threat to the safety of his co-workers.
Berling sued the company, alleging disability discrimination and retaliation, which refers to getting fired when an employee exercises their workplace rights or reports a legal violation of workplace laws.
He was awarded the money by the jury for lost wages and emotional distress.
The company's lawyer John Maley said Berling had "clenched his fists", "turned red" and also ordered his supervisors to "be quiet" during the meeting, which scared them, according to NYT.
Maley said that since Berling was an at-will employee, the company had the right to fire him for any legal reason.
In the US, at-will employees can be fired at any time for any reason except illegal ones, or even for no reason, without incurring legal liability. Similarly, at-will employees can leave a job at any time for no reason without suffering legal consequences.
He added that the company plans to challenge the verdict, and said Berling had not disclosed his anxiety disorder to the company, nor did he meet the legal threshold to qualify as having a disability.
Meanwhile, Berling's lawyer Tony Bucher said his client's reaction was in response to criticism from one of the supervisors for his response to the birthday party.
As such, he asked them to stop talking and used "physical coping techniques". This included a move which Bucher described as closed fists but up around his chest, closed in and "almost hugging himself".
Bucher added: "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."