A Kentucky man with an anxiety disorder asked his employer not to celebrate his birthday because it would trigger a panic attack.
When the company, Gravity Diagnostics, ignored Kevin Berling’s request and had a surprise lunchtime celebration for him on Aug. 7, 2019, he got upset, and days later, Berling was fired, according to a lawsuit he filed against the company in a Kenton County court.
On March 31, a jury awarded him $450,000. The jury found that Berling suffered an “adverse employment action” because of his anxiety disability, court documents show.
The saga began in August 2019 when Berling told his office manager that he did not want to celebrate his birthday because it would trigger a panic attack. The company has a practice of having birthday celebrations at the office for employees, says the lawsuit, which was filed in 2019.
However, the company surprised him on his birthday with a celebration in the lunchroom. Berling had a panic attack, the suit says. He quickly left and finished the rest of his lunch in his car and then texted his manager, upset that the company failed to accommodate his request.
A day after the celebration, Berling was called into a meeting where he “was confronted and criticized” for his reaction, according to the lawsuit.
“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.”
On Aug. 11, he was sent a letter telling him he was being terminated “because of the events of the previous week,” the lawsuit says.
Berling sued, alleging disability discrimination and retaliation.
Gravity Diagnostics did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Founder and Chief Operating Officer Julie Brazil told the northern Kentucky news website Link NKY that Berling was terminated for violating a “workplace violence policy” and that the company stands by its decision.
She also said there had been an increase in incidents of workplace violence, telling the site: “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.”
Tony Bucher, an attorney for Berling, said 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,” he said in a statement.