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School District Failed to Reasonably Accommodate Teacher with Seasonal Affective Disorder

July 3, 2012

In Ekstrand v. School District of Somerset, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently upheld a jury verdict in favor of a first grade teacher with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) who alleged that a public school district violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by denying her requests for transfer to a windowed classroom.

The teacher, Renae Ekstrand, joined Somerset Elementary School in 2000 as a kindergarten teacher. In Spring 2005, the school district granted her reassignment request to teach first grade in a classroom with no exterior windows. Before the 2005-06 school year started, Ekstrand alleged that she spoke with the school principal "several times" about how she had SAD, which is a form of depression, and how she would have difficulty functioning in a classroom that did not have any natural light. The school district denied Ekstrand's repeated requests for a transfer to a windowed classroom.

In Fall 2005, Ekstrand began experiencing SAD symptoms and went on medical leave on the advice of both her psychologist and primary care physician. Ekstrand's leave was extended through the remainder of the 2005-06 school year, as well as the following academic year. During the three-month leave period from October 2005 through January 2006, Ekstrand twice repeated her request to transfer to another classroom and provided a letter from her psychiatrist stating that "natural sunlight was crucial to Ekstrand's recovery and that working in a classroom without windows had been a major cause of her condition." Ekstrand eventually left her employment after she secured a teaching position elsewhere. In 2008, she sued the school district alleging failure to reasonably accommodate her disability and constructive discharge under the ADA.

A jury returned a verdict in Ekstrand's favor and awarded her approximately $2,000,000 in damages, which was later reduced by the U.S. District Court to about $133,000. The District did, however, award approximately $375,000 in attorneys' fees and costs to Ekstrand. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that Ekstrand was a qualified individual with a disability based on medical testimony stating Ekstrand would have been emotionally capable of returning to work from medical leave if the school district had transferred her to a classroom with natural light. There was enough evidence for the jury "to conclude that Ekstrand was a qualified individual with disability in October through early December, and that the school district knew about it, but failed to accommodate her with a new classroom."

The Ekstrand decision is a reminder that school districts must remain cognizant of their potential obligation to reasonably accommodate disabled employees, particularly those with SAD or other forms of depression, by changing their physical work location, or making modifications to their work area in order to provide them with a work setting that allows them to perform their essential job functions. It is critical that school administrators engage in an interactive process, which includes: identifying a potential obligation to reasonably accommodate a disabled employee, meeting with the employee to determine the reasonableness of a requested accommodation, and obtaining any necessary medical documentation from the employee before a final decision is made. By engaging in an interactive process with a disabled employee, a school district will be able to better assess the reasonableness or necessity of a proposed accommodation and minimize its potential liability under the disability laws.

If you have any questions about how the Ekstrand decision and how it may impact your school district, please contact your Clark Hill Education Law attorney. 

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