An employee has taken legal action against his employer after it fired him for his reaction to a surprise birthday party in his honor. The employee claimed that he had been unlawfully discriminated against on the basis of a disability and that the employer had failed to take his disability into account and retaliated against him. After a trial, the Kentucky jury awarded him $450,000.
Before his birthday, the employee asked his employer if he could skip the festivities that year, due to his anxiety disorder. The office manager, however, did not inadvertently forward the employee’s request to the birthday party coordinator. Thus, despite the employee’s request, the employer organized the employee’s surprise birthday party at lunchtime. The surprise reportedly triggered a panic attack that forced the employee to leave the office suddenly. The employee then ate the rest of his lunch in his car and texted the office manager saying he was upset that his request had not been met.
The next day, the employee’s supervisor and business operations manager met with the employee about his behavior during the celebration. During this meeting, the employee reportedly began to experience a second panic attack. The employee then told his supervisors to shut up, clenched his fists and turned red. Concerned about the behavior, the employer sent him home for the day. Three days later, the employer terminated the employee, fearing that other employees feared for their safety when the employee suffered panic attacks.
Court case and result
The employee filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against his employer under a state law that prohibits employers from firing an employee because the person is a qualified person with a disability. The employee alleged, among other things, that his employer failed to reasonably accommodate his request not to throw a birthday party for him, nor did he reasonably accommodate his request that his supervisor stop confronting him. about her reaction to the birthday party. The employee also alleges that his requests were ignored and that he was terminated due to his disability. The employer argued that the employee could not demonstrate that he had a disability that significantly limited a major life activity and that he had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for his dismissal (i.e. say concerns in the workplace for the safety of other employees).
After a two-day trial, the jury decided in favor of the employee. The jury found that the employee had a definite disability; that he was able to perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation; and that he suffered adverse employment action because of his disability. The jury awarded $450,000, including $120,000 in lost wages and benefits; $30,000 in lost future wages and benefits; and $300,000 for past, present and future mental pain and anguish. The employee was also entitled to recover his lawyer’s fees and expenses.
As this case shows, even something as simple and innocent as an office birthday party for an employee can turn into a very costly lesson if not handled properly. During the trial, the employer’s chief of staff admitted that she had forgotten to send the request for accommodation to the person responsible for office parties. Employers should ensure that employees understand that accommodation requests should be taken seriously and should be referred to the appropriate people so that the situation can be handled appropriately. Additionally, employers should be aware that the US Federal Disabilities Act and many state anti-discrimination laws generally prohibit discrimination and require reasonable accommodations for disabilities, which include mental disabilities in addition to physical disabilities.
A. Eddie Wayland is a partner at the law firm King & Ballow. You can reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The foregoing materials, discussions and commentaries have been excerpted from statutes, court rulings and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or topics.