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Let the sun shine in—or you could wind up facing ADA liability

by on
in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

The ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals who have disabilities. Once an employer becomes aware of an employee’s disability, the ADA requires it to provide a reasonable accommodation to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of her job.

While the types of reasonable accommodations required can vary greatly depending on the employee’s medical condition and the particular job, it was not until recently that a court found that permitting an employee to work in natural light might be a reasonable accommodation.

A SAD case

In Ekstrand v. School District of Somerset (No. 09-1853, 7th Cir., 2009), the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found that a Wisconsin school district may have violated the ADA by not granting a teacher’s request for a classroom with natural light. (See “When employee suggests cheap accommodations, it’s worth your while to consider agreeing.”)

Elementary schoolteacher Renae Ekstrand suffered from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression most often associated with the lack of daylight from the late fall to the early spring.

Before the beginning of the school year, Ekstrand informed school administrators about her condition and asked to be assigned to a classroom with natural light. Ekstrand repeated her request several times during the fall semester as she experienced increasing difficulty functioning in a classroom with just artificial light. She said her SAD symptoms included “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.

Out on leave, never to return

Ekstrand took medical leave for depression a 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. 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. A district court granted the school district’s motion to dismiss both claims.

Reasonable accommodation?

The 7th Circuit overturned that ruling in a decision that focused primarily on “whether Ekstrand presented evidence that the school district failed to reasonably accommodate her.”

The court noted that cases involving mental disabilities were especially difficult, because the employee’s need for accommodation isn’t “obvious.” Citing past decisions, the court concluded that disabled employees “must make their employers aware of any nonobvious, medically necessary accommodations” before requiring an employer to provide accommodations.

The court concluded that once Ekstrand’s psychologist informed the school district that natural light was a medical necessity for Ekstrand, the school was obligated to accommodate her condition or prove that a transfer to a classroom with natural light would be an “undue hardship.”

Although the school would have incurred some costs in allowing Ekstrand to exchange classrooms, “little hardship would have been imposed” on the school. The court remanded the case for a jury to determine whether the school district failed to reasonably accommodate Ekstrand’s disability.

What employers need to do

Employers and HR professionals should listen to and recognize an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation. Analyze each situation carefully. Fully and promptly evaluate the cost and feasibility of accommodating the employee’s needs.

If the accommodation does not impose an undue hardship, 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.

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