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Right to Sunlight
Renae Ekstrand taught kindergarten and first grade at the Somerset Elementary School from 2000 to 2005.

Before the 2005-2006 school year, Ekstrand was reassigned to a classroom lacking exterior windows. Ekstrand immediately told the principal that she had Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of depression, and would have difficulty functioning in a room with artificial light. She repeatedly requested a room with natural light before school began, and for several weeks after it began (and while her health declined).

Ekstrand also identified other issues that exacerbated her depression, including noise distractions and inadequate ventilation. The school worked with Ekstrand to remedy these issues, but did not reassign her to a room with natural light despite her repeated requests.

During September, Ekstrand began experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, and trouble organizing tasks. By October, her anxiety and depression worsened, and she suffered panic attacks and thoughts of suicide. Ekstrand's doctors placed her on medication and advised her to take a leave of absence for the remainder of the semester. Twice during her leave she repeated her requests for a room switch.

During this time there were two alternate classrooms available. However, the school did not reassign Ekstrand to these rooms.

Ultimately, Ekstrand sued the school, claiming it failed to accommodate her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In response, the school said it tried to accommodate her, but it wasn't obligated to give her the exact accommodation she demanded, a classroom with windows.

The Court disagreed with the school. "Ekstrand adduced evidence that she ... could have performed her essential job functions," the Court noted, "had she been provided a room lacking the various stressors that exacerbated her Seasonal Affective Disorder."

"The language of the ADA demonstrates that a reasonable accommodation is connected to what the employer knows about the employee's precise limitations," the Court wrote. "In sum, an employer may not be obligated to provide a specifically requested modest accommodation unless the employer is made aware of its medical necessity to the employee."

"Disabled employees must make their employers aware of any non-obvious, medically necessary accommodations with corroborating evidence such as a doctor's note ... before an employer may be required ... to provide a specific modest accommodation the employee requests," the Court explained.

"Ekstrand informed the school district through her psychologist that natural light was the key to her improvement. Once aware of natural light's medical necessity to Ekstrand," the Court ruled, "the school district was obligated to provide Ekstrand's specifically requested, medically necessary accommodation unless it would impose an undue hardship on the school district."

"Little hardship would have been imposed in providing Ekstrand an available classroom," the Court concluded.

Although the school "would have experienced costs associated with switching the items in the two rooms and with performing any necessary readjustments," the Court wrote, "these admittedly nonzero costs are modest and that Ekstrand presented sufficient evidence for a jury to find them required under the ADA." [Ekstrand v. Somerset (7th Cir. 2009) no. 09-1853]

For information on this topic, request Memos:
5730 Employer Must Accommodate Disabled Persons
5735 Accommodation Must Be Reasonable
5745 Accommodating Disabilities: Job or Schedule Changes

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