Excerpted from a Shawe Rosenthal LLP blog by Garrick Ross and Fiona W. Wong

In the latest entry in our series on extraordinary workplace misconduct, we must come to terms with the fact that not everyone loves birthdays or surprises. And, when an employee tells you that they don’t want a surprise birthday party, you’d best oblige them or you could face a discrimination suit and a nearly half a million-dollar verdict!

As the Washington Post and New York Times reported, a Kentucky-based medical laboratory, Gravity Diagnostics, was found liable for disability discrimination when it fired an employee who suffered from an anxiety disorder that caused panic attacks. As a result, the jury awarded $450,000 in damages for lost wages and emotional distress. However, it’s the series of events that prompted the employer’s actions that are extraordinary.

Prior to his birthday in 2019, the employee asked his employer if they could skip the festivities due to his anxiety disorder. However, somewhere in that game of office telephone, the message got lost. So, on that fateful birthday, the employee walked into work and to his horror, there awaiting him was a birthday part in his honor. The employee’s colleagues and a banner lined Gravity Diagnostics’ break room.

The employee quickly began to suffer a panic attack and, instead of sticking around for the celebration, grabbed his lunch and hid in his car in the parking lot. The next day in a meeting with supervisors, the employee was chastised over his behavior. Unfortunately, in that same meeting, the employee began to suffer a second panic attack. The parties interpret what happened next differently, but the employee told his supervisors to be quiet, balled his fists, and became red-faced.

Concerned by the behavior, Gravity Diagnostics promptly terminated him. The employee sued Gravity Diagnostics for disability discrimination in response to these events. The jury found that the employee suffered an adverse employment action based on his anxiety disorder and awarded him $150,000 in lost wages and $300,000 for emotional suffering, making this quite the expensive birthday party.

While Gravity Diagnostics intends to appeal, there are several lessons that employers can draw from this saga. First, what constitutes a disability under federal and state law is broad. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act and state anti-discrimination laws prohibit discrimination and require reasonable accommodations for disabilities, which includes mental disabilities in addition to physical ones. Additionally, as our society becomes increasingly more receptive to mental health concerns, juries will be more willing to find in favor of plaintiffs and against employers.

Second, if an employee brings specific concerns to your attention, it is important to listen and respond appropriately. If the concern is connected in some way to the employee’s health – whether mental or physical – this becomes even more consequential. If the employee’s concern involves a request that is relatively easy to grant (e.g. “please do not throw me a birthday party”), it may be best simply to agree to the request. If it is somewhat more complicated, it may be necessary to engage in the interactive process that is required under disability discrimination laws. In this case, it was significant that the employee brought his wishes to his employer well in advance of the birthday.

Third, confronting an employee like this can backfire. Instead of chastising the employee, this miscommunication could have served as a teaching moment for both parties. Many employees have introverted tendencies (without mental disabilities), and employers should develop ways to work with those employees. While many employers emphasize the importance of being a team player, the focus should be on how well the employee works with others, and not necessarily on how they socialize. Although employees should engage with their co-workers in a civil manner, not everyone is comfortable with the same type of social interaction in the workplace. A wise employer will engage those employees in a manner with which they are more at ease.

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