Employment Law Lessons: Happy Birthday Edition
Two recent cases highlight how seemingly common workplace situations can end up erupting into employment litigation when employers ignore the sensitivities raised by employees. Both cases involve birthday celebrations where the employee indicated they’d rather not engage.
No card signing requested
In the first case, an employee who is a Jehovah’s Witness worked for her employer for seven years with no performance issues. Based on religious beliefs that prohibited birthday and holiday celebrations, she declined to attend office birthday parties and to sign birthday cards.
After returning to work following a severe concussion, the employee alleged that two supervisors scrutinized her requests for leave time for follow-up therapy, and one supervisor questioned the severity of her medical condition. She complained to the employer’s in-house counsel, who advised her to apply for FMLA leave.
On the same day that she submitted a FMLA leave request, a supervisor who knew her religious beliefs asked her to sign a birthday card. When the employee declined, the supervisor questioned the sincerity of her religious beliefs and then “stormed off.”
The two supervisors also began to question the employee’s performance and watch her work more closely. Then, the Director of Finance instructed the employee to shorten her FMLA leave request to less than 12 weeks. In the midst of this, the employee was asked to sign yet another birthday card. The employee complained to the employer’s counsel several more times, and shortly after that she was discharged for failing to attend a required team meeting.
The employee sued alleging retaliation and interference under the FMLA and religious discrimination. The employer promptly asked the court to dismiss the employee’s complaint for failure to state any violations of the law.
Not so fast, said the court. The employee’s complaint alleged that her supervisors knew about her religious objections to celebrating birthdays, but nonetheless asked her to sign multiple birthday cards and weren’t happy when she wouldn’t. Then, the employee was subjected to negative performance reviews days after refusing to participate in birthday celebrations, and she was ultimately discharged. That was enough to let the religious discrimination claim proceed, according to the court.
The court also allowed the FMLA retaliation claim to proceed. The court noted that the employee had asked about FMLA leave, complained to counsel when her supervisors questioned and criticized her use of leave, and treated her negatively until she was ultimately fired.
No party, please
Another birthday-related case has been in the news lately and warrants some further explanation. This particular employer was big on birthday celebrations and held birthday parties for employees. An employee told the company’s office manager that he did not want to celebrate his birthday the next week as it was associated with bad childhood memories and caused him stress. The office manager promptly forgot to cancel the birthday party and went on vacation.
Unfortunately, the next week the employee walked into a very unwanted birthday party and suffered an anxiety attack. He left the building and ate lunch alone in his car. While that might have ended the situation, the employee’s supervisor and the director of business operations decided to meet with him to discuss the situation leading to another anxiety attack. Using response techniques he’d been taught, the employee clenched his fists and opened and closed his eyes to try to fight off the attack. The supervisor and business director tried to get the employee to open up about what was going on. But the employee was working hard to fight off the anxiety attack and continued clenching and squinting. He told them, "Silence. Please be quiet." He started shaking. Not understanding his behavior, both the supervisor and the business director were scared and left the room.
The supervisor and business director returned and told the employee to leave the premises and his key fob. The employee left without objection and left the facility. He later apologized. The supervisor and business director contacted the COO who decided that the employee’s behavior violated the company's policy against workplace violence. The company terminated employee for threatening behavior in violation of the workplace violence policy.
The employee sued alleging disability discrimination. Unlike many employment cases that are dismissed or settled before trial, this case went to trial and was decided by a jury. As multiple news sources have reported, the jury recently awarded the employee $450,000 in his lawsuit under the Kentucky Civil Rights Act.
Each case has important legal and practical lessons for employers.
- Accommodate religious beliefs. Under Title VII, the federal law that protects against religious discrimination, employers are obligated to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs by modifying practices when those modifications do not pose an undue hardship. Letting the employee opt out of signing a birthday card was an easy accommodation for the employer to make.
- Monitor for retaliation. In the first case, the employee complained to the company’s attorney about the religious discrimination, restrictions on use of FMLA, and harsh treatment following her complaints. Termination followed shortly thereafter. An adverse employment action close in time to the employee’s complaints creates a causal connection to establish retaliation.
- Effective communication and disability discrimination. In the second case, the employee communicated with the employer’s office manager about a possible medical condition underlying his reaction to the birthday event. The employer in this situation would have been well-advised to look in to the circumstances related to the employee’s reaction to the party before making a termination decision. Employers are more likely to be successfully in defending employee claims when they have conducted an investigation and have a full understanding of the facts.
- Manager training. Aside from the legal claims in these cases, managers in both cases seemed to get caught up in situations that did not have to escalate the way that they did. Training on employment laws can help managers identify sensitive employment situations and guide them on when to reach out to human resource professionals or employment counsel for assistance in navigating those challenges.
The McDonald Hopkins Labor & Employment Team is available to assist employers with compliance and manager training.