Excerpted from a Levenfeld Pearlstein LLC Blog

A jury recently awarded a Kentucky man $450,000 after his employer threw him a surprise birthday party against his wishes, and then terminated him for how he reacted. The employee had an anxiety disorder and had asked the office manager not to celebrate his birthday because it would trigger a panic attack.

Despite the employee’s request, the company held the surprise birthday celebration for him at lunchtime. He quickly left and ate his lunch in his car, and then texted the office manager saying he was upset his request wasn’t accommodated.

According to the lawsuit, the following day he was “criticized” for his reaction and told he was “stealing other coworkers’ joy,” which triggered another panic attack. He was sent home for the remainder of the day. A few days later, the company fired him by email, citing their concern he was angry and possibly violent based on his behavior during the meeting.

The employee promptly sued the company, alleging failure to accommodate, disability discrimination and retaliation. The jury found in the employee’s favor and awarded him $450,000 for lost wages and mental anguish.

What employers should know
This case is a good reminder for employers regarding the obligation to accommodate mental health conditions, and how to handle mental health-related situations in the workplace.

1. Take requests for accommodations seriously – even if they aren’t specifically phrased as a request for accommodation.
Although the employee said he didn’t want a birthday celebration, the employer’s chief of staff admitted she forgot to pass the accommodation request on to the person responsible for office parties. Employers should make sure employees understand requests for accommodation must be taken seriously and referred to the appropriate HR individuals in the organization so they can be handled correctly.

2. Don’t make assumptions about employees’ mental health conditions.
The case serves as an important reminder that employers should take mental health seriously and avoid making assumptions about such issues. In this case, the employer cited its “workplace violence policy” as justification for the employee’s termination, but the jury disagreed.

3. Take care when responding to sensitive situations.
While the birthday celebration triggered the lawsuit, the situation was exacerbated by how the employer handled the aftermath – in particular, how management discussed the situation with the employee and then terminated his employment. When in doubt about how to handle a sensitive situation, pause before responding and reach out to your employment attorney for guidance.

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