Aimee is an attorney in the Labor and Employment department. She focuses her practice on representing employers in all aspects of labor and employment law, including employment–related agreements, executive compensation, employee benefits,...Read More by Author
It’s My Party and I Can Cry If I Want To: Lessons for Employers to Take Away from the $450,000 Verdict in Favor of the Employee Who Sued Over an Office Birthday Party
In April 2022, a Kentucky jury awarded $450,000 to a fired employee who claimed that an unwanted office birthday party triggered panic attacks. The employee refused to attend the party on his behalf and was later terminated. The jury found that the employee experienced adverse employment action because of his disability, specifically his anxiety.
While the facts of this case seem unique and perhaps ridiculous on their fact, this serves as a warning flags for employers, particularly as employees return to the office after years working at home. Anxiety-related disability charges being filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have been steadily rising and are forecasted to continue to rise. EEOC data shows charges citing anxiety disorder encompassed 11.6% of total charges it received under the Americans with Disabilities Act in fiscal year 2021. That number is up from 10.3% in fiscal year 2020 and 9.5% in 2019. These figures also represent close to a 65% jump from the number of ADA filings citing anxiety disorders that employees brought to the agency a decade ago.
The biggest takeaway for employers is to take employee mental health seriously. May is mental health awareness month and the best way for employers to handle claims of anxiety or any other mental health issues is to keep an open dialogue. Employers should listen to employee preferences. If the employee shares that they have a disability or perceived disability, do not create a situation that could trigger those feelings. In the birthday party scenario, the employee asked not to celebrate his birthday because he felt it would trigger his anxiety disorder. When he later discovered that the part would be happening anyway, he had a panic attack and spent his lunch break in his car.
The employee was requesting a disability accommodation — to cancel the party so he wouldn’t have a panic attack. This simple request could have easily gotten lost in translation, either by not taking the request seriously, or for fear of sharing confidential medical information. A simple conversation between manager and employee may have cleared up the miscommunication about the party. Instead, however, the employee’s supervisors called him into a meeting and chastised him for his reaction, triggering another panic attack. The manager, surprised and alarmed at the employee’s reaction, assumed he may be a violent person and then terminated the employee a few days later. Notably, this employee did not have a record of any past performance issues.
Common sense should prevail. If an employee is obviously uncomfortable with a situation, managers should be equipped with the emotional intelligence tools to sit down with employees and discuss feelings of anxiety and how it can be managed.
Employers should consider giving paid or unpaid time off to employees that appear to be experiencing a mental health issue that is impairing their ability to work, with the expectation that they will later return to full duty later. Sending an employee home eliminates the immediate risk to the workplace and gives the employee time to cool off. However, it is also important to follow up with employees about such incidents. The employee with the unwanted birthday party was sent home, but then terminated days later without having any meaningful conversation about what had happened. Employers must open the door for employees to disclose what they are experiencing so that the employer can figure out the cause and how to help.
Practically speaking, after years of the COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in remote work, employers are looking to bring employees back to the office on a grander scale. While the return to the office setting is anxiety inducing, many employers are also planning potentially social events to celebrate the return to work and encourage employee bonding. Employers should strike a careful balance with return to office plans. Employers that listen and respond to what their employees want or do not want are putting themselves in the best possible position to avoid claims of discrimination, or at the very least be well-prepared to respond to such claims.
The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.