Sunday, October 11, 2009

Natural Light an ADA Accommodation for SAD?

Business Insurance Magazine reports:
"failure to accommodate an employee suffering from seasonal affective disorder with natural light could run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act."
The operative word in that sentence, as is often the case in the world of ADA opinions, is "could." The case in question is Renae Ekstrand v. School District of Somerset, No. 08 C 193 (7th Cir. Oct. 6, 2009). The Seventh Circuit held that a school's failure to put a teacher with Seasonal Affective Disorder ("SAD") in a classroom with natural light could violate the ADA. The case was remanded to the lower court.

ADA claims frequently involve fact-intensive inquiries. For example, is SAD a disability? Well, it was here but that does not necessarily make it a disability in the future. Each case will have to determine whether the specific instance of SAD "substantially limits one or more major life activities." In this case, the Plaintiff produced evidence that she:
"experienced hypersomnia, racing thoughts, panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, inability to eat, and thoughts of suicide."
All of that was on top of "fatigue, anxiety, hypervigilance, tearfulness, racing thoughts, and trouble organizing tasks." This was not just a case of feeling a little tired in the winter.

Assuming SAD is a disability, can we at least draw from this case that natural light is a reasonable accommodation? Again, depends on the facts. Here, another teacher offered to switch classrooms and another classroom sat empty (but was reserved for a possible new 3rd grade class). It probably wouldn't have been an "undue hardship" to simply switch the rooms. It may have been a little different if the employee worked in a windowless warehouse or a coal mine where natural light is simply not an option.

So do employers have to provide natural light for employees with SAD? It's still not clear. The employer in this case might not even have to provide such an accommodation! It will likely head to a jury (assuming no settlement or subsequent motions). Such are the troubles with drawing precedent from ADA cases.

Sidenote: The author of this opinion, Judge Bauer, and another judge on this panel, Chief Judge Easterbrook, were both in the news recently when a blogger allegedly threatened to kill them.