Employment-Seventh Circuit Rules That Plaintiff Has Made Out An ADA Claim Of Failure To Accommodate

In Ekstrand v. School District of Somerset, No. 09-1853, the plaintiff, Renae Ekstrand, sued her former employer, the Somerset School District, in part on the grounds that her employer had failed to accommodate her seasonal affective disorder, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”). The District Court had granted summary judgment to the employer on this claim, and the plaintiff appealed the decision.

The plaintiff had taught successfully at Somerset Elementary School from 2000 to 2005. For the 2005-2006 school year, the school assigned her to a classroom lacking exterior windows. The plaintiff told the principal that she had seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression, and would have difficulty functioning in a room without the natural light coming through a window. There were two alternate rooms available that had windows, but the school refused to transfer the plaintiff to one of those rooms despite her repeated requests. On October 17, 2005, the plaintiff sought medical attention for her condition. Her doctors placed her on medication and advised her to take a leave of absence for the remainder of the semester, about three months. The plaintiff took the leave and never returned to the school. She filed this suit in February 28, 2008.

In analyzing the plaintiff’s claim, the Court said that, to survive the school district’s request for summary judgment, the plaintiff had to present evidence that, if believed by a trier of fact, would show that: (1) she was a qualified individual with a disability, (2) the school district was aware of her disability and (3) the school district failed to reasonably accommodate that disability. The Court found that the plaintiff had presented, from her doctors and others, the evidence required to establish elements (1) and (2).

The Court said that, to establish element (3), the plaintiff had to present evidence showing not only her attempt to engage in an interactive communication process with the school district to determine a reasonable accommodation, but also that the school district was responsible for any breakdown that occurred in that process. To be treated as having attempted to engage in such process, a disabled employee must make his or her employer aware of any nonobvious, medically necessary accommodations with corroborating evidence such as a doctor’s note or at least orally relaying a statement from a doctor. Here, in the middle of November, the plaintiff told the school district that she was willing and able to return to work in a classroom with a natural light coming through a window. Then, on November 28, 2005, the plaintiff informed the school district through her psychologist that natural light was the key to her improvement. At that point, the school district was obligated to provide the plaintiff’s specifically requested, medically necessary accommodation-that is, a room with a window- unless it would impose an undue hardship on the school district. The Court found that there would not have been any such undue hardship in meeting the plaintiff’s request. There were two rooms available. Each of those rooms had a window, and could have made ready for the plaintiff’s use at little cost . The Court concluded that the plaintiff had established element (3), as well as elements (1) and (2), and overturned the district court’s summary judgment against the plaintiff on her ADA claim of failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.