It’s getting dark out sooner. The sun is coming up later. And with the darker season comes struggles for employees who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a form of depression in which a decrease of natural light triggers a mood disorder. So does that mean you may have to offer SAD sufferers a workspace near sunlight? Quite possibly, as a recent court ruled that “Natural light may be a medical necessity”…
Case in Point: Renae Ekstrand worked happily as a first-grade teacher for Somerset School District in Wisconsin for four years. Then she was transferred to a classroom without any exterior windows.
Before her school year started, Ekstrand gave the principal a doctor’s note that explained she suffered from seasonal affective disorder. The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that as many as six of every 100 people in the United States suffer from SAD. Another 10% to 20% may experience some milder form of the illness.
Exstrand's note said she'd have difficulty functioning in a room that lacked natural light. The principal denied her request.
Ekstrand made several more requests to transfer classrooms. They were all declined even though a classroom with light sat empty and another teacher offered to switch rooms.
Eventually, Ekstrand went on medical leave for depression. While on leave, she again made several more requests for a classroom with natural light. These requests were ignored. She missed almost two school years before she took another teaching job out west.
Ekstrand sued the school district under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), saying the school failed to address a reasonable accommodation for her disability, as the law requires. The school argued that Ekstrand didn’t have a qualifying disability. (Ekstrand v. School Dist. of Somerset, 7th Cir., 10/6/09)
What happened next and what lessons can be learnerd?
The court threw the school’s argument out the window. It sent the case to a jury trial and told the school district it was time to see the light!
The court concluded, “Once aware of natural light's medical necessity to Ekstrand, the school district was obligated to provide Ekstrand's specifically requested, medically necessary accommodation unless it ‘would impose an undue hardship' on the school district.”
While the school district may incur some costs in swapping classrooms, the court said a jury would likely find “little hardship” to the employer in doing so.
3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court
1. Don’t stay in the dark. Make sure your managers and supervisors are educated about the ADA because its coverage expanded this year. More ailments are considered disabilities than ever before.
2. Don’t cover your ears. Ignoring ADA requests won’t make them go away. Listen to them, consider them and at a minimum respond to employees with your determination. (For advice on how far you have to go, read ADA: The Limits of Accommodation)
3. Have a light bulb moment. If a request for an accommodation is reasonable, then be smart enough to grant it rather than litigate over it. Here, the court said the request was a “nonzero cost” … and what is more reasonable than free?