An employee filed a lawsuit against his employer after his employer terminated him for his reaction to a surprise birthday party in his honor. The employee claimed that he was unlawfully discriminated against based on a disability, and that the employer failed to accommodate his disability and retaliated against him. After a trial, the jury in Kentucky awarded him $450,000.
Prior to his birthday, the employee asked his employer if they could skip the festivities that year, due to his anxiety disorder. The office manager, however, inadvertently did not relay the employee’s request to the birthday party coordinator. As such, despite the employee’s request, the employer held the surprise birthday party for the employee at lunchtime. The surprise allegedly 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 that he was upset his request was not accommodated.
The next day, the employee’s supervisor and director of business operations met with the employee regarding his behavior during the celebration. During that meeting, the employee allegedly began to suffer a second panic attack. The employee then told his supervisors to be quiet, balled his fists, and became red-faced. Concerned by the behavior, the employer sent him home for the day. Three days later, the employer terminated the employee, citing concerns that other employees had been frightened for their safety when the employee suffered the panic attacks.
Court case and result
The employee filed a disability discrimination lawsuit against his employer under a state law which prohibits employers from discharging an employee because the person is a qualified individual with a disability. The employee alleged, among other things, that his employer failed to reasonably accommodate his request to not have a birthday party for him, and also failed to reasonably accommodate his request that his supervisor stop confronting him about his reaction to the birthday party. The employee also alleged that his requests were ignored and that he was terminated on the basis of his disability. The employer argued that the employee could not demonstrate that he had a disability that substantially limited a major life activity, and that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for his discharge (i.e., workplace concerns for other employees’ safety).
After a two-day trial, the jury found in favor of the employee. The jury found that the employee had a defined disability; that he was able to perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodations; and that he suffered an adverse employment action because of his disability. The jury awarded $450,000, which included $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 anguish. The employee was also entitled to recover his attorneys’ fees and costs.
As this case shows, even something as simple and innocent as an office birthday party for an employee can turn into a very expensive lesson if not handled properly. During the trial, the employer’s chief of staff admitted that she forgot to pass the accommodation request on to the person responsible for the office parties. Employers should make sure that employees understand that requests for accommodation must be taken seriously and need to be referred to the appropriate individuals so that the situation can be handled appropriately. Additionally, employers need to be aware that the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and many state anti-discrimination laws generally prohibit discrimination and require reasonable accommodations for disabilities, which includes mental disabilities in addition to physical ones.
R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at [email protected] The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.