Diversity & Inclusion, HR Management & Compliance

Lessons on Accommodating Anxiety Disorders

“Birthdays were invented to sell Hallmark cards.” – Ron Swanson

If you’ve ever watched the show “Parks and Recreation,” you know 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 he has a meltdown. The scenario may be entertaining on TV, but not for employers. 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.

Berling didn’t want a birthday party because it could trigger his anxiety. So, a few days before his birthday, he told the office manager about his anxiety disorder and asked that his employer not throw him a party. But they did so anyway.

On Berling’s birthday, the employer threw a lunchtime party. When the employee 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 the confrontation triggered another panic attack. A few days later, the company terminated his employment.

Big Bucks

Berling sued his employer in Kentucky state court for one count each of disability discrimination and retaliation. He alleged his plea not to have a birthday party was a request for a reasonable accommodation for his disability and that he was fired for raising the issue.

In April 2022, the jury returned a verdict for Berling and awarded him a total of $450,000, which included $300,000 for emotional distress and $150,000 for lost wages.

Takeaways

There are always two sides to a story, and Berling’s case will likely be appealed. Nevertheless, his allegations provide several key lessons for employers:

  • Remember, anxiety and PTSD disorders are common and may rise to the level of a disability if they substantially affect a major life activity, including conditions that are worsened by social events, crowds, or loud noise.
  • Take disability accommodation requests seriously, engage in an interactive dialogue about the inquiries, and document the process; and
  • 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 hold one.

Sarah Stula is an employment and litigation attorney with the law firm Foulston Siefkin LLP in the Kansas City area. You can reach Stula at sstula@foulston.com.

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