A Man Won a Lawsuit for an Unwanted Office Birthday Party: What it Means for Workplace Discrimination

Madeline Messa

Like the infamous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit, this is one of those cases that leaves an absurd first impression but earns sympathy when its details are explored.

In April, a jury awarded a man $450,000 after he sued his former employer for throwing him a birthday party at work. 

However, there is more to the story. The man, Kevin Berling, asked his employer, Gravity Diagnostics, not to throw him a party as they usually did for their employees’ birthdays. He had an anxiety disorder, and he explained he feared his “bad memories” associated with his birthday would trigger a panic attack.

Disregarding his request, the employer threw a party anyway. 

Berling had a panic attack, and his employer fired him shortly after for “workplace violence.” Berling then sued Gravity Diagnostics for disability discrimination.

Despite the clickbait-sounding headlines this case made for, it is realistically about disability discrimination in the workplace. It should serve to remind employers they are obligated to make accommodations for disabled employees, including those whose disabilities are related to mental health. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Title I requires employers to provide disabled employees with reasonable accommodations to perform their jobs and enjoy the same access and benefits as their coworkers. 

In this case, the jury sided with Berling, finding his request to not have a birthday party was a reasonable accommodation for his disabling anxiety disorder. His employer did not deny the accommodation because of any undue hardship, but simply because they did not take the request seriously. Further, the employer fired Berling due to his panic attacks, creating a relatively clear-cut case for disability discrimination.

When people think of discrimination, they often think of race or gender and overlook disabilities. 

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year that people with disabilities were far more likely to be unemployed than people without disabilities, regardless of age or education. Disabled people were also more likely to be self-employed than people without disabilities.

Accommodations are meant to close these gaps by providing disabled employees with tools and modified work environments needed to perform their jobs successfully. Accommodations can include allowing a cashier with chronic pain to sit at their register rather than stand all day, a sign language interpreter for a deaf job applicant — or respecting the request to not throw a birthday party for an employee who made it known it could give them a panic attack.

Accommodations are flexible, and not all disabilities call for the same accommodations. Employees should be able to comfortably ask their employer for an accommodation for their disability without fear of retaliation. 

Workplaces that are ignorant to disability law and unwilling to grant reasonable accommodations reinforce the unemployment disparity between people with and without disabilities, marginalizing disabled employees. 

Mental health is valid, and work is on the rise as a major source of stress for many people. In response to a Harvard Business Review survey, 76% of people suffered from at least one negative mental health symptom. Employers who deny reasonable accommodations to mitigate disabling anxiety only exacerbate the issue. 

Employers need to acknowledge the law and be receptive to disabled employees and job applicants. Putting up motivational posters in the break room to encourage overwhelmed employees to count to ten and imagine they are in a happier place is not going to cut it. 

This blog was published with permission.

About the Author: Madeline Messa is a law student at Syracuse University with a BA in journalism from Penn State. She is currently working as a legal and communications intern for Workplace Fairness.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.