The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual with a disability. Once an employer becomes aware of an employee’s disability, the ADA requires the employer to provide a “reasonable accommodation” to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job. While the type of reasonable accommodations required can vary greatly depending on the employee’s medical condition in each case and job, it was not until recently that a court found that permitting an employee to work in natural light can be a reasonable accommodation.
In Ekstrand v. School District of Somerset, No. 08-193 (W.D. Wis. Oct. 5, 2010), a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin found that a Wisconsin school district violated the ADA by not granting a teacher’s request for transfer to a classroom with natural light. The jury awarded the former teacher more than $2 million in damages. While the damage award was ultimately reduced to approximately $127,000 due to the cap on damages imposed for claims brought under the ADA, the award should serve as a wake-up call for employers to timely and appropriately address a disabled employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation, no matter how peculiar the employee’s need or request for accommodation might seem.
The plaintiff in Ekstrand was an elementary school teacher suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD”) (a form of depression). Prior to the beginning of the school year, Ekstrand informed the school administration about her condition and requested placement in a room with natural light. Ekstrand repeated the request several times during the fall semester as she experienced increasing difficulty in functioning in a classroom with artificial light, including “fatigue, anxiety, hypervigilance, tearfulness, racing thoughts, and trouble organizing tasks.” The school refused to accommodate Ekstrand’s request even though two appropriate classrooms were available.
Ekstrand took medical leave for depression within few months after the school year began. While on leave, her condition worsened. Ekstrand continued to ask for a classroom with natural light, advising the school she would return under that condition. Ekstrand’s psychologist also notified the school of the importance of natural light for individuals with a history of SAD and indicated that Ekstrand’s depression was most likely related to a room lacking natural light. Once again, the school refused Ekstrand’s request. Ultimately, she was unable to return to work.
Ekstrand sued the school district claiming that the school failed to accommodate her and constructively discharged her in violation of the ADA. The district court granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment on both claims.
In reversing the grant of summary judgment on the failure to accommodate claim, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals focused primarily on “whether Ekstrand presented evidence that the school district failed to reasonably accommodate her.” See Ekstrand, 583 F.3d 972 (7th Cir. 2009). The court noted that cases involving mental disabilities were especially difficult, because the employee’s need for accommodation is “nonobvious” to the employer. Citing past decisions, the court concluded that disabled employees “must make their employers aware of any nonobvious, medically necessary accommodations” with corroborating evidence such as a doctor’s note or statement before requiring an employer to provide reasonable accommodations. However, once the school district was informed by Ekstrand’s psychologist that natural light was a medical necessity and key to Ekstrand’s improvement, the school was obligated to accommodate Ekstrand’s condition or prove that transfer to a classroom with natural light would be an “undue hardship.” While the school would have incurred some costs in allowing Ekstrand to exchange classrooms, the court noted that “[l]ittle hardship would have been imposed” on the school in providing her a classroom with natural light. The court remanded the case, and the jury found the school district liable under the ADA for its failure to accommodate Ekstrand’s reasonable request for a classroom with windows.
Even though the $2 million damage award was ultimately reduced, the bottom line is that employers and HR professionals should listen to and recognize an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation. Employers should analyze each situation carefully, and fully and promptly evaluate the costs and their ability to accommodate a disabled employee’s needs. If the accommodation does not impose an “undue hardship” on employers, they should respond to accommodation requests by considering the disabled employee’s needs and wishes while devising strategies to maintain a productive workplace, even if that means bringing some sunlight into a room.