Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, employers and employees are required to engage in an interactive process with respect to a disabled employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation. In cases of psychological disability – depression, for example – necessary accommodations may be non-obvious to the employer. In those cases, courts have held that in order to trigger an employer’s obligation to provide accommodation, a disabled employee must make the employer aware of any non-obvious, medically necessary accommodations by supplying corroborating evidence, such as a doctor’s note or statement. Recently, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a case, and found that a school failed to engage in the required interactive process after a teacher provided a doctor’s statement that linked the teacher’s Seasonal Affective Disorder depression to the lack of windows in her classroom. Ekstrand v. Sch. Dist. of Somerset, 7th Cir., No. 09-1853, Oct. 6, 2009.
Renae Ekstrand taught kindergarten from 2000 to 2005 at Somerset Elementary School in Wisconsin. In 2005, Ekstrand’s request to be transferred to teach first grade was granted; she was assigned to a classroom that lacked exterior windows. At that time, Ekstrand informed the principal that she suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD”), a form of depression, and would have difficulties teaching without access to natural light. While two alternate rooms were available, both with windows, no transfer to either of those rooms was made. During the initial weeks of the 2005 school year, Ekstrand’s health declined, and she continued to ask for a room with access to exterior windows, which was denied. However, during that same time, the school did address Ekstrand’s requests related to other work area issues, including inadequate ventilation and the lack of various educational necessities, like bulletin boards and a locking cabinet. Ekstrand’s health problems worsened, and on October 17, her doctor placed her on medication and advised a leave of absence for the remainder of the term.
During the following months, Ekstrand continued to ask for the room change, advising the school that she would be able to return under that condition. On November 28, 2005, Ekstrand’s psychologist notified the school district, through its representative, of the importance of natural light for individuals with a history of SAD, and opined that Ekstrand’s depression was a direct result of her transfer to a room lacking access to natural light. Still, the school district did not make the requested room change, and Ekstrand ultimately left her employment at Somerset and began teaching elsewhere.
In 2008, Ekstrand sued the school district, alleging failure to accommodate, as well as constructive discharge. A federal district court granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment on both claims, holding that the school engaged in the interactive process when it addressed Ekstrand’s other work-related issues, and that the school’s conduct did not amount to a constructive discharge. On appeal, the 7th Circuit upheld dismissal of the discharge claim, but reversed the ADA dismissal. The reversal was based primarily on the fact that once it was aware of natural light’s medical necessity to Ekstrand (after being informed by Ekstrand herself that she was willing and able to return to work in a classroom with access to such light), the school district was obligated to provide that requested accommodation, unless it could show that the request would impose an “undue hardship” for the school. After reviewing the proffered evidence related to the proposed classroom change, the Court determined that there would be “little hardship” related to the switch, and reversed the dismissal of Ekstrand’s claim on that basis.
While the ADA is focused primarily on the interests of disabled employees, the Act’s “reasonableness” standard regarding the interactive process protects the interests of employers by allowing them to show that a requested accommodation would create an undue hardship. However, not every non-zero cost to an employer will be viewed by the courts as “undue” hardship. In this case, the evidence produced by the school indicated that the cost and disruption associated with the classroom change would have been “modest,” leading the Court to find that once the school was informed by the doctor that Ekstrand’s depression was cause by lack of natural light, an obligation was created that either required the school to make the change, or prove that the hardship generated by the change would be significant. Neither occurred, and Ekstrand’s case will go forward on the issue of whether the school failed in its duty to accommodate. Employers should recognize when an accommodation has been requested, full and considered evaluation of the costs and effects should be done promptly, and documentation of those efforts should be complete, in order to support the employer’s decision with respect to the request.