“Birthdays were invented to sell Hallmark cards.” – Ron Swanson
If you’ve ever watched the show “Parks and Recreation,” you know that Leslie Knope lives for birthdays, but her boss Ron Swanson hates them. In one episode, Leslie pranks Ron by pretending to plan an elaborate birthday party for him, and Ron has a meltdown. This may be entertaining on TV, but not for employers. As case in point, a jury recently awarded $450,000 to an employee who was fired after having a panic attack at an office birthday party. The bottom line is: pay close attention to any request for a disability accommodation…even one to skip an office party.
Birthday Party Gone Wrong
Kevin Berling suffered from severe anxiety, which can qualify as a disability under state or federal law. His employer, a diagnostics company, had a custom of throwing office birthday parties for its employees. But Berling did not want a birthday party, because it could trigger his anxiety. So, a few days before his birthday, Berling told the office manager about his anxiety disorder and asked that his employer not throw him a birthday party. But they did anyway.
On Berling’s birthday, the employer held a lunchtime party. When Berling found out about the party, he had a panic attack. He left the office and sat in his car during lunch. The next day, supervisors confronted Berling about his reaction to the birthday party, and that confrontation triggered another panic attack. A few days later, the company terminated Berling’s employment.
Berling sued his employer for disability discrimination and retaliation. He alleged that his request not to have a birthday party was a request for a reasonable accommodation for his disability and that he was fired for making this request. A jury returned a verdict for Berling, awarding him a total of $450,000, which included $300,000 for emotional distress and $150,000 for lost wages.
There are always two sides to a story, and this case may be appealed. However, Berling’s allegations provide several key lessons for employers. Remember that anxiety and PTSD disorders are common and may rise to the level of a disability if they substantially affect a major life activity, including disorders that are worsened by social events, crowds, or loud noise. Take disability accommodation requests seriously, engage in an interactive dialogue about those requests, and document the process. Let employees skip optional social activities as their health and personal needs require. And Leslie, if Ron Swanson says don’t throw him a birthday party…then don’t throw one.