US employee awarded $450,000 for unwanted birthday party at work, firm to appeal

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A US company said Monday it plans to appeal a ruling awarding $450,000 to a former employee who was fired soon after having a panic attack when it held a birthday party for him against his will.

Kevin Berling, who says he suffers from an anxiety disorder, had warned his superiors at Gravity Diagnostics, a medical laboratory, that he did not want any celebration for his birthday, explaining that it reminded him of bad memories linked to the divorce of his parents, according to court documents.

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But on August 7, 2019, during his lunch break, Berling had been wished “happy birthday” by some colleagues and had discovered a banner for the occasion in the break room of the company, located in Kentucky.

He then went and sat in his car, in which he claims to have had a panic attack.

The next day, during a meeting with his female supervisor and another colleague to discuss his behavior, Berling “lashed out both with body language of clenched fists, clenched teeth, red faced and shaking and verbally was demanding her to ‘stop talking,’ and ‘be quiet,’ while glaring across the table,” said John Maley, a lawyer for Gravity Diagnostics, in an email to AFP.

The supervisor and the other employee present “were both terrified for their physical safety,” he added, which prompted the company to fire Berling.

Before the incident, Berling had never been reprimanded for his behavior.

Contesting his dismissal, Berling sued Gravity Diagnostics for “discrimination on the basis of a disability,” and last month was awarded $450,000 dollars in compensation, including $150,000 for the loss of income and $300,000 for the humiliation, loss of self-esteem and suffering caused.

The firm, which denies any discrimination and says it had never been informed of the employee’s anxiety problems, plans to appeal, said Maley.

“Particularly in this era of workplace violence, employers are entitled to and indeed should take prompt action, as here, to protect their employees,” he said.

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