US man wins lawsuit, awarded thousands after being fired following unwanted birthday party

Stock image of man hiding his face with his hands at a birthday party while guests throw streamers
The man suffered a series of panic attacks after the unwanted party. Photo credit: Getty Images

They say when one door closes, another opens, and while losing your job is hardly ever something worth celebrating, getting the boot can sometimes have an unexpected bright side - like one man who received a $668,000 boost to his bank account.

The man has been awarded US$450,000 (NZ$668,600) after his former employers threw him an unwanted surprise party for his birthday despite his objections. 

The plaintiff, Kevin Berling, was formerly employed by Gravity Diagnostics, a medical laboratory that processes COVID-19 tests in Covington, Kentucky.

According to the lawsuit filed in Kentucky's Kenton County, Berling - who suffered from anxiety disorders - had specifically asked his manager not to celebrate his birthday at work as it could potentially trigger a panic attack, causing uncomfortable memories from his childhood to resurface.

Despite his request, the company went ahead and organised a surprise party for Berling's birthday on August 7, 2019. Berling suffered a panic attack and promptly left the gathering, finishing his lunch in his car. 

According to the lawsuit, Berling was then "confronted and criticised" at a tense meeting the following day, where he was accused of "stealing his co-workers' joy" and "being a little girl". The fallout caused Berling to suffer a second panic attack and he was sent home for the remainder of August 8 and August 9. 

On August 11, Berling was fired from Gravity Diagnostics, with his employers citing concerns regarding workplace safety. His lawsuit alleged the company had discriminated against him because of a disability and that he had been unfairly dismissed based on a simple request not being accommodated. 

After a two-day trial at the end of March - almost three years after the saga - the jury awarded Berling US$450,000, including $300,000 for emotional distress and $150,000 in lost wages.

However, the company has denied any wrongdoing. In a statement to the local Covington-based news outlet Link NKY, chief operating officer Julie Brazil said Gravity Diagnostics stands by its decision to terminate Berling's employment as he had violated a "workplace violence policy".

"My employees were the victims in this case, not the plaintiff," she said.

US man wins lawsuit, awarded thousands after being fired following unwanted birthday party
Photo credit: Getty Images

According to reports, the company is planning to challenge the verdict and is mulling an appeal.

Berling's attorney, Tony Bucher, told the BBC there "was absolutely no evidence" that his client had behaved in a way that would warrant his dismissal.

"He had a panic attack. That is all. And, because representatives from Gravity Diagnostics did not understand his panic... and were unnerved by his response, they assumed he was a threat," Bucher told the BBC.

"Assuming that people with mental health issues are dangerous without any evidence of any violent behaviour is discriminatory."

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a US-based advocacy group, more than 40 million Americans - nearly a fifth of the population - suffer from anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders are also very common in Aotearoa. Approximately one in four New Zealanders will be affected by an anxiety disorder at some stage in their lives and at any one time, 15 percent of the population will be affected, according to data from the non-profit community initiative Health Navigator.