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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
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School Discriminated Against ‘SAD’ Teacher

(CN) - A school district discriminated against a teacher who suffered from seasonal depression by refusing to give her a room with windows, the 7th Circuit ruled.

Renae Ekstrand taught at Somerset Elementary School in Wisconsin from 2000 until 2005, when she asked to move from Kindergarten to first grade. The school put her in a windowless room, which she repeatedly requested to be moved out of and into a room with natural light.

Ekstrand suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depression common at northern latitudes and often treated with bright lights. She experienced symptoms including "fatigue, anxiety, hypervigilance, tearfulness, racing thoughts, and trouble organizing tasks" in September 2005.

Ekstrand also complained about other issues with the room, including noise and ventilation problems. The school worked with her to try and resolve the matter, but did not move her in to an alternate room with windows.

By the time Ekstrand took medical leave in October 2005, she claims that her condition worsened to include "hypersomnia, racing thoughts, panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, inability to eat, and thoughts of suicide."

She received medical treatment and continued to request a new room, which the school continued to refuse. When she stated her intentions to stay on leave for the rest of the school year, the school asked her to turn in her keys. Ekstrand filed suit in February 2006.

Although the trial court ruled that Ekstrand had neither been subject to discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act nor constructively discharged, the Chicago-based appeals court found that the school should have accommodated her requests.

The best evidence showed that Ekstrand was disabled at some point between Nov. 30 and Jan. 3, not Nov. 14 as the district court had said. This alone presented enough of a question of fact to reverse the lower court's summary judgment, Judge Bauer wrote.

Reasonable accommodation requires "a great deal of communication," an issue compounded by involvement of a mental disability, the ruling said. The employer should take the nature of the disability into account, although the employer's knowledge is also limited by the information it receives.

The appellate court pointed to a doctor's letter dated Nov. 28, explaining the existence of light therapy to combat this type of depression. In light of the "admittedly nonzero costs" of changing to a different room, the school was obligated to carry this out.

The appeals court upheld dismissal of the constructive discharge claim, saying the conditions were not nearly intolerable enough for Ekstrand to qualify.

A separate concurring opinion by Judge Evans told the lower court on remand to consider whether or not Ekstrand was indeed "qualified," in light of her condition and the nature of the job.

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