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How to protect your company from a lawsuit tip #1: Do not throw a surprise party for your employees

How to protect your company from a lawsuit tip #1: Do not throw a surprise party for your employees

Or, treat your staff’s mental health issues seriously.

Throwing employees a birthday party is an enviable company perk that many people would love to have. But not everyone loves a surprise, much less a surprise birthday party thrown for one’s benefit, for different reasons.

There are a variety of thoughtful ways for a company to show its appreciation for its employees, which may not include throwing them a surprise birthday party. For certain employees, specifically those who are introverted or are painfully shy, giving them a paid birthday leave would be better appreciated. It’s also unlikely to lead to a lawsuit.

Can you sue your employer for throwing you a surprise birthday party?

Suing your employer for doing an ostensibly nice thing like throwing you a surprise birthday party may make you come across as unappreciative and rude. In most cases, a simple “thanks” would suffice. That is unless the party is unwanted and there are serious repercussions for throwing the party.

In August 2019, Kevin Berling from Kentucky sued his employer, Gravity Diagnostics, for throwing him a surprise birthday party after he specifically asked them not to because it would trigger his anxiety disorder. The person in charge of the company’s surprise birthday parties forgot about his request, so Mr. Berling was indeed surprised.

Because of the oversight, Mr. Berling suffered from a panic attack. He then went to his car where he did breathing techniques to calm himself, ate his lunch, and texted his manager, saying he was upset because his request was ignored. His managers weren’t happy either because, presumably, they spent on food and gathered people around to celebrate Mr. Berling’s birthday, only for him to rebuke it.

They thought he was just a party pooper

Quite possibly, the managers and some of the staff at the company didn’t think much of anxiety disorders and/or mental illnesses, in general. Or perhaps, they just wanted to have a good time, albeit at the expense of Mr. Berling’s mental health.

The fact is that people with anxiety disorder tend to suffer from intense and severe worries and fears about everyday situations, which may interfere with their daily routine. A natural coping mechanism is to stay away from places or situations that may trigger an attack. Certain types of anxiety disorder may be so excessive and intense that there might be psychological and physical symptoms.

Mr. Berling had presumably been managing his illness for years and knew that things like surprise parties for him are triggers. And so when he was working at his former workplace and found out that the company throws surprise birthday parties for employees, he notified the responsible person to exclude him from it.

But what made his ordeal even worse was being confronted by his managers and being accused of stealing other co-workers’ joy, following his initial panic attack — all because he didn’t partake in the festivities. Never mind that it was his birthday, not his coworkers’. So he suffered another panic attack and hugged himself to cope with another stressful situation.

Also according to his lawsuit, he was asked to stop hugging himself, and when he didn’t, the staff at the office took it to mean that he was angry and about to turn violent. But he was just having a panic attack. Having two panic attacks during your birthday is certainly unpleasant.

This could have all been avoided…

…if the party organizer hadn’t forgotten his simple request.

Obviously, it’s unfortunate that a seemingly nice gesture ended up in a lawsuit. Because of the panic attacks caused by the ill-fated birthday party, the company managers asked Mr. Berling to take two days off. But three days later, he received an email saying he was being fired due to the events of his surprise birthday.

Related reading: Wrongful termination lawsuits: The wrong, the bizarre, and the funny

Mr. Berling’s lawsuit cited disability discrimination and retaliation, essentially saying that the company did not accommodate his anxiety disorder, which caused him “to suffer from a loss of income and benefits and emotional distress and mental anxiety.”

For all his troubles, Mr. Berlinger was awarded $450,000 by the jury: $300,000 for emotional distress and $150,000 for lost wages. Now, if the company had only thought to give him cash for his birthday instead.

Buckingham, LaGrandeur, & Williams are personal injury attorneys in Washington State. We are the team to call for your personal injury case in the Evergreen State. Call our law offices in Renton, Seattle.