Kevin Berling’s birthday was fast approaching and, because he didn’t want to start hyperventilating, shaking and crying at work, he knew he had to stop his colleagues from throwing a party.
The chief of staff, however, forgot to relay the message to the person charged with handling employees’ birthdays, she admitted in court records. Berling came to work the following Wednesday — Aug. 7, 2019 — to birthday wishes, a birthday banner and a birthday party.
His fears came to fruition: He had a panic attack and, after getting upset during a subsequent meeting with his bosses, was fired.
Berling sued Gravity Diagnostics, claiming the company discriminated against him because of a disability, ignored his request for “reasonable accommodation” and fired him for objecting when they failed to provide that accommodation.
More than 2½ years after he was terminated, a jury on Friday agreed, awarding him $450,000 for lost wages and mental anguish he suffered at Gravity Diagnostics, where he had worked for roughly 10 months as an accessioner, tasked with organizing lab samples and data entry.
“It was a big step for someone that doesn’t like that type of attention — to stand up in front of 12 jurors and stand up for himself,” Berling’s attorney, Tony Bucher, told WKRC.
A spokesperson for Gravity Diagnostics told The Washington Post that the company plans to appeal “this improper verdict.” The judge should have ruled in favor of the company before the case went to trial, the spokesperson said in a statement, arguing that Berling never disclosed he had anxiety or suffered from panic attacks. Moreover, he wasn’t fired over either of those things, the spokesperson said, but because of how he behaved after the ill-fated birthday celebration.
When Berling arrived at work that day, his fellow accessioners wished him a happy birthday, which put him “a little on edge,” he said during a sworn deposition.
Berling testified that he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder around 2009 when his parents divorced. Since then, he’d had one or two panic attacks a year, each lasting one to two minutes. Birthdays were an especially trying time because his parents told him they were splitting up the day he turned 17, he said, then “inadvertently blamed” him for it.
“That day is a day that is very stressful and causes a lot of anxiety for me,” he testified.
On his 27th birthday, however, Berling carried on with his work at Gravity Diagnostics, despite arriving to happy birthday greetings — until lunch when he entered the break room, which was decked with a “Happy Birthday” banner and filled with more co-workers preparing to fete him.
They didn’t get the chance.
Berling snatched his lunch from the fridge and fled to his car to ride out a panic attack for the next 45 minutes.
He emailed the chief of staff, Allison Wimmers, that he was “a little upset that there were birthday things around.” The next day, he sent a follow-up message asking to talk. Because Wimmers was out of town on vacation, she relayed the request to Berling’s supervisor, Amy Blackburn, who met with Berling and the company’s director of business operations, Ted Knauf.
Berling told Blackburn he was upset about what had happened the day before, adding that the unwanted birthday party triggered a panic attack that made him feel “like he was suffocating.” About a minute into the meeting, he turned “very red” as he closed his eyes and clenched his fists, Blackburn testified in a deposition. When she asked whether he was okay, Berling “commanded silence.” When Knauf interjected to ask whether there was anything he could do to help, Berling again “commanded silence while shaking.”
Blackburn feared he “was going to literally strike her,” so much so that she said she would have called police if she’d had her cellphone.
Berling didn’t attack. Instead, he left minutes later when his bosses sent him home until the following Monday. In doing so, they revoked his access key, escorted him from the building and told security he was banned from the office. Later, the chief operating officer decided to fire him.
Gravity Diagnostics’ spokesperson said Blackburn is still shaken by the fear that came over her when she thought Berling was about to hit her. “This female supervisor and the other employee were both absolutely terrified for their physical safety,” the spokesperson said.
Bucher, Berling’s lawyer, gave WKRC a different account of the meeting.
“They started giving him a pretty hard time for his response to the birthday celebration, actually accusing him of stealing his co-workers’ joy,” he told the TV station.
Bucher told The Post that higher-ups at the company wrongly assumed his client posed a violent threat when, in fact, he was using coping techniques to calm down and stave off a panic attack.
“There is no evidence that he had ever exhibited any violent tendencies or that he had ever engaged in any threatening behavior,” he said in an email. “He had a panic attack, and Gravity Diagnostics made no attempt to try to understand his panic response.
“Instead, Gravity Diagnostics assumed that he posed a threat and terminated his employment based on those unfounded and discriminatory assumptions.”
Berling missed out on the windfall that came with Gravity Diagnostics’ explosive growth over the 2½ years, Bucher told WKRC. During the pandemic, the lab testing company has processed coronavirus tests from around Kentucky, leading to pay raises from 50 percent to 300 percent for some employees, Bucher said.
Instead, Berling went back to school. He’s taking classes at Northern Kentucky University, where he also works as a lab tech. He plans to transfer to another school to earn a doctorate in neurobiology. He testified that, since the unwanted birthday party, he has more frequent panic attacks — one or two a month.