Jury awards $450,000 to a man who called an unwanted birthday party

A Kentucky man, fired days after having a workplace panic attack over an unwanted birthday party, was awarded $450,000 by a jury last month to make up for lost pay and emotional distress.

The man, Kevin Burling, had been working at a medical lab, Gravity Diagnostics in Covington, Kentucky, for about 10 months when he asked his office manager not to throw him a birthday party because he had an anxiety disorder, according to a lawsuit. It was filed in Kenton County Court in the County of Kentucky.

Burling’s attorney, Tony Bucher, said the party was planned by other employees while the office manager was away and that the situation quickly spiraled out of control.

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

The next day, Mr. Bucher said, Mr. Burling had a panic attack in a meeting with two supervisors who confronted him about his “dreary behaviour”. He was fired three days later in an email that suggested Mr Berling was a safety threat to his co-workers.

In the court filing, the company said it fired Mr Burling because he was “violent” at the meeting and frightened supervisors, who sent him home on the day, took his master key and told security personnel he was not allowed to come back.

A month after the meeting, in September 2019, Mr. Berling filed a lawsuit against the company for disability discrimination.

After a two-day trial, the jury reached a verdict on March 31, concluding that Mr. Berling had been subjected to adverse functional actions due to a disability. Jurors awarded him $150,000 in lost salary and benefits, and $300,000 for suffering, embarrassment, and loss of self-confidence.

The judge in the case has not yet issued a ruling on the ruling, which was reported by local news site LINK nky.

On Saturday, John Malley, an attorney for Gravity Diagnostics, said the company would file post-trial motions to challenge the verdict on legal grounds, and asserted that a juror violated court orders regarding out-of-trial information.

Mr. Malley said the case did not meet the disability claim criterion because Mr. Burling never disclosed to the company his anxiety disorder and did not meet the legal threshold for disability qualification.

Mr. Malley said the company had the right to fire Mr Burling – a lab technician whose job status was at will, meaning he could be fired for any legal reason – because he was clenching his fists, his face turning red and he had ordered his supervisors to remain silent at the meeting to scare them off.

“They were absolutely afraid of physical harm during that moment,” Julie Brazel, founder and chief operating officer of Gravity Diagnostics, said Saturday. “Both of them are still upset about that today.”

Mr Bucher said the reaction the company described was Mr Burling’s attempt to calm himself during a panic attack after a supervisor criticized his reaction to the party.

Mr. Burling asked them to stop talking and used physical coping techniques, including a movement that Mr. Bucher described as having been closed with his fists but “around his chest, sort of closed, almost cuddling himself”.

Mr. Berling was sent home for the remainder of the work day and the following day. At home two hours after the meeting, he texted a supervisor to apologize for his panic attack, according to the complaint.

Mr. Bucher said that prior to that week Mr. Berling had received “fantastic” monthly ratings. The company said he never received a negative review, nor was he disciplined, according to court documents.

Mr Bucher said Mr Burling is happy with his new job at the school, and although panic attacks increased after that week in 2019, they gradually subsided.

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

It’s a good idea for people with anxiety disorders and panic attacks to discuss these issues with a supervisor at work who can be a source of support when an employee is struggling, Basma Anwar, mental health counselor for therapy app Talkspace, said in an email.

Ms. Anwar said job anxiety may be a result of workload as well as social pressures.

“Social anxiety can also start in the workplace when interaction with managers and co-workers becomes expected,” Ms. Anwar said. “If the employee is uncomfortable and concerned by having a birthday party in his honor or participating in a celebration for others, he should be allowed to opt out.”

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