Jury awards man $450,000 after workplace throws unwanted birthday party

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Kevin Berling’s birthday was fast approaching, and since he didn’t want to start hyperventilating, shaking and crying at work, he knew he had to stop his colleagues from throwing a party.

Five days before turning 27, Berling told his boss on a Friday that he associated his birthday with “bad memories” and that he didn’t want the usual fanfare unfurled by Gravity Diagnostics, a testing company in a lab based in Covington, Ky., according to court records. He suffered from an anxiety disorder and feared that attention would trigger a panic attack.

The chief of staff, however, forgot to pass the message on to the person in charge of managing employees’ birthdays, she admitted in court records. Berling came to work the following Wednesday – August 7, 2019 – for birthday wishes, a birthday banner and a birthday party.

His fears came to fruition: he had a panic attack and, after getting angry in a subsequent meeting with his bosses, was fired.

Berling sued Gravity Diagnostics, claiming the company discriminated against him because of a disability, ignored his request for “reasonable accommodation” and fired him for objecting to the refusal to provide this layout.

More than 2.5 years after his dismissal, a jury agreed on Friday, awarding him $450,000 for lost wages and mental anguish he suffered at Gravity Diagnostics, where he had worked for about 10 months as a accessor, responsible for organizing laboratory samples and data entry. .

“It was a big step for someone who doesn’t like that kind of attention – to stand in front of 12 jurors and defend themselves,” Berling’s lawyer, Tony Bucher, told the WKRC.

A spokesperson for Gravity Diagnostics told the Washington Post that the company plans to appeal “this improper verdict.” The judge should have ruled in favor of the company before the case went to trial, the spokesperson said in a statement, saying Berling never disclosed that he suffered from anxiety or panic attacks. . Moreover, he wasn’t fired for any of those things, the spokesperson said, but because of the way he behaved after the ill-fated birthday party.

When Berling arrived at work that day, his fellow candidates wished him a happy birthday, which put him “a little on edge,” he said in a sworn deposition.

Berling testified that he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder around 2009 when his parents divorced. Since then, he’d had one or two panic attacks a year, each lasting a minute or two. Birthdays were a particularly trying time because his parents told him they were separating on his 17th birthday, he said, and then “subconsciously blamed him”.

“That day is a very stressful day and causes me a lot of anxiety,” he testified.

On his 27th birthday, however, Berling continued his work at Gravity Diagnostics, despite arriving to happy birthday greetings – until lunchtime when he walked into the break room, which was adorned with a “Happy Birthday” banner. and filled with more colleagues. is about to celebrate.

They didn’t have the chance.

Berling snatched his lunch from the fridge and fled in his car to have a panic attack for the next 45 minutes.

He emailed the chief of staff, Allison Wimmers, that he was “a little upset that there were birthdays”. The next day, he sent a follow-up message asking to talk. Because Wimmers was out of town on vacation, she forwarded the request to Berling’s supervisor, Amy Blackburn, who met with Berling and the company’s director of business operations, Ted Knauf.

Berling told Blackburn he was upset about what had happened the night before, adding that the unwanted birthday party had triggered a panic attack that left him feeling “suffocated”. About a minute into the meeting, he turned “very red” as he closed his eyes and clenched his fists, Blackburn testified in a deposition. When she asked if he was okay, Berling “ordered silence.” When Knauf intervened to ask if there was anything he could do to help, Berling again “ordered silence while shaking.”

Blackburn feared he was “literally going to hit her”, so much so that she said she would have called the police if she had had his cellphone.

Berling did not attack. Instead, he left minutes later when his bosses sent him home until the following Monday. In doing so, they revoked his access key, escorted him out of the building, and told security he was banned from the office. Later, the COO decided to fire him.

The Gravity Diagnostics spokesperson said Blackburn was still shaken by the fear that gripped her when she thought Berling was about to punch her. “This supervisor and the other employee were both absolutely terrified for their physical safety,” the spokesperson said.

Bucher, Berling’s lawyer, gave the WKRC a different account of the meeting.

“They started giving him a hard time for his response to the birthday celebration, actually accusing him of stealing the joy of his colleagues,” he told the TV station.

Bucher told the Post that senior company officials mistakenly assumed his client posed a violent threat when, in fact, he was using coping techniques to calm himself down and avoid a panic attack.

“There is no evidence that he ever exhibited violent tendencies or ever engaged in threatening behavior,” he said in an email. “He had a panic attack, and Gravity Diagnostics made no attempt to try to understand his panic reaction.

“Instead, Gravity Diagnostics assumed he posed a threat and terminated his employment based on these unfounded and discriminatory assumptions.”

Berling missed the windfall that has accompanied Gravity Diagnostics’ explosive growth over the past 2½ years, Bucher told WKRC. During the pandemic, the lab testing company processed Kentucky coronavirus tests, resulting in pay increases of 50% to 300% for some employees, Bucher said.

Instead, Berling went back to school. He attends classes at Northern Kentucky University, where he also works as a lab technician. He plans to transfer to another school to earn a doctorate in neurobiology. He testified that since the unwanted birthday party, he had more frequent panic attacks — one or two a month.

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