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This Man Won $450k Lawsuit After An Office Birthday Party

Mental health promotion in the workplace is beneficial for both employees and businesses

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Unsplash

If you haven’t heard—in March of 2022, a man won a $450k lawsuit against his company after a birthday party that they threw for him back in 2019.

I was also surprised when I saw the news. I mean, what could go wrong with a birthday party?

Well, a lot can go wrong.

And it might not be apparent at first, but this is about a lot more than just a birthday party.

It all started in 2018, when Kevin Berling joined Gravity Diagnostics as a lab technician in Covington, Kentucky. He asked the company not to throw him a birthday party, as they normally do for their employees, since it causes him to have panic attacks.

And guess what the company did? They threw him a birthday party.

This was in August of 2019, when Berling’s co-workers held a surprise birthday celebration for him during lunch. Because of this, he suffered from a panic attack and had to leave the office to recover.

Next day comes, and Berling’s boss called him into a meeting to question him on the situation:

“Mr Berling was ‘confronted and criticised’ at a meeting the following day, where he was accused of ‘stealing his co-workers joy’ and ‘being a little girl’.” (Source: BBC)

The stressful meeting then triggered a second panic attack.

3 days later, the company fired him—with the reason being that they were “worried about him being angry and possibly becoming violent.

Because of all this, Berling sued Gravity Diagnostics for disability discrimination, stating that he “has suffered and is continuing to suffer from a loss of income and benefits and emotional distress and mental anxiety.

The two-day trial took place at the end of March, 2022. Berling won the lawsuit, and the 12 jurors awarded him with $450,000, including:

“$120,000 in lost wages and benefits; $30,000 in future lost wages and benefits; and $300,000 for past, present and future mental pain and suffering, mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation, mortification, and loss of self-esteem.”

There is still a chance that the company may appeal the decision. Gravity Diagnostics claimed that Berling never disclosed his disability to the company. They also stated that he exhibited threatening behavior towards a colleague after the party, stating that they have a “zero tolerance for violence in the workplace.”

Upon first hearing about this lawsuit, one may assume that Berling sued the company because they threw him a birthday party. But the surprise party is not the problem.

To put it simply, Gravity Diagnostics fired him because he has anxiety.

No one has the choice to decide whether they have a mental illness or not. Yet the company fired him because of it—that’s discrimination.

Berling’s co-workers shouldn’t have thrown him a surprise celebration against his wishes in the first place. The manager supposedly “forgot” about his request, asking them not to celebrate his birthday.

Okay—let’s say that they really did forget his request. But after seeing Berling’s reaction, what was the point of questioning him further? Why did they feel the need to make all the disparaging remarks? Couldn’t they have just apologized for their mistake, instead of deliberately berating him?

They literally accused him of upsetting his co-workers. Him? Upsetting his co-workers? Do they not realize how tone-deaf that sounds?

And after all that, they then decide to fire him. The company claims that Berling was being hostile and a threat to the safety of the workplace.

Come on, Gravity Diagnostics—it’s not his fault that he had another panic attack because you were being inconsiderate assholes.

I highly doubt that he was actually causing harm to anyone. It’s most likely that he was emotionally and mentally overwhelmed as he tried to cope from the panic attacks—the ones that were caused by his colleagues and boss—and his agitation might have been perceived as “threatening.” (Or they’re just saying that as an excuse for discriminatory actions.)

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association Durham, research shows that people with mental illness are “more likely to be the victims of violence than other members of society.”

The article “Violence and mental illness: an overview” by Heather Stuart, published in World psychiatry: official journal of the World Psychiatric Association, also states:

“…mental disorders are neither necessary, nor sufficient causes of violence.”

If the company decided to terminate Berling’s employment solely based on him experiencing panic attacks—which were provoked by the other employees—then that is disability discrimination. If they want to claim that he was a “threat” to his co-workers, then the company should provide proof that he actually presented endangering behavior—because his anxiety alone is not an indication that he poses a threat to anyone.

The problem is less about the fact that the company threw him a surprise birthday party despite his request not to do so—though it is still an issue—but rather they fired him because of his mental health conditions.

It just comes to show that Gravity Diagnostics does not care about their employee’s wellbeing. The company showed no compassion—continued to criticize him and bring up triggering subjects even after they caused him to have a panic attack. They made fun of him for his mental illness, shamed him for it, and then proceeded to fire him. All of this was completely unnecessary, and it’s harmful to those who do suffer from mental health conditions.

If anything, they were the hostile ones—not Berling.

The CDC states that poor mental health can have negative impacts on an employee’s job performance, engagement, communication with co-workers, and daily functioning. This also means that when employees are not provided support for their mental health, the business will be afflicted as well.

Dismissing workers’ mental and emotional wellbeing does no good for anyone. It’s important that companies are educated on how to handle situations regarding mental health in the workplace — to be more understanding and to treat those affected with respect.

Businesses should provide resources to help improve employee’s mental health, as well as offer systems of support—such as counseling and community programs—to those who need it.

Mental health is just as important as physical health, and it should be treated as such.

It’s only when we promote and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace, then we can actually create constructive work environments—ones that are beneficial and supportive for everyone.

Want to read more by A.X.? Feel free to check out this article, where I share my thoughts after reading the play ‘Top Girls’ by Caryl Churchill:

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