The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities. 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 accommodation required can vary greatly depending on an employee’s disability and essential job functions, it was not until recently that a court found that permitting an employee to work in natural light can be a reasonable accommodation.
On June 26, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld a 2010 jury verdict in favor of a Wisconsin first-grade teacher with seasonal affective disorder who brought suit under the ADA against her employer school district, claiming that the school denied her requests to transfer to a classroom with exterior windows. In Ekstrand v. Sch. Dist. of Somerset, No. 11-1949, first-grade teacher Renae Ekstrand had requested, beginning in 2005, to move to a classroom with windows that would let in natural light. The school denied her request, and, as a result, Ekstrand continued to teach in her assigned classroom, which had no exterior windows. Shortly after the 2005-2006 school year began, Ekstrand began experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, a mood disorder exhibited by having normal mental health throughout most of the year and experiencing depressive symptoms during certain months.
Ekstrand again requested a room change, but because the only unoccupied classroom was being held for a future expansion, the principal could only try to make Ekstrand’s assigned classroom more hospitable. After seeking medical attention, Ekstrand began taking medication and took a leave of absence for the remainder of the semester, about three months. During this time she made additional room transfer requests to the school district superintendent, explaining that she would not be able to teach unless she was assigned to a classroom with natural light. Additionally, her psychologist sent a letter to the school district stating that natural light was “crucial to Ekstrand’s recovery.” When no reassignment occurred, Ekstrand extended her leave through the remainder of the school year and the entire next year as well. In 2008, Ekstrand filed suit against the school district, alleging that the it had failed to make a reasonable accommodation for her disability.
The district court granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment, but the Seventh Circuit reversed the decision and remanded the case for trial. The appellate court noted that cases involving mental disabilities are 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. Accordingly, 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 unless it proved that transferring her 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 held that “[l]ittle hardship would have been imposed” on the school in providing her a classroom with natural light. On remand, a jury found the school district liable under the ADA for its failure to accommodate Ekstrand’s reasonable request for a classroom with windows. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the jury’s verdict, holding that while appellate courts are “generally forbidden from reexamining the facts found by the jury at trial,” “there is ample evidence at the post-trial stage for a reasonable jury to have found in Ekstrand’s favor.”
For the majority of employees, a sunlit workspace is a perk, sometimes awarded with seniority or as part of a promotion or bonus. For individuals with seasonal affective disorder, however, it may be a reasonable accommodation for a recognized disability.