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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is covered under the ADA

July 12, 2012

Article Courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

By Anthony Kaylin

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is a recurrent type of depression that happens at a certain time of the year for the affected person. Many people remain skeptical about the medical validity of this disorder, even though the medical community now recognizes it as valid. SAD more often occurs in northern regions during winter, when the days are short and sunshine is minimal. It is often treated by the use of special lamps or sunlight. Medical researchers believe the depression is caused by a lack of exposure to sunlight, and special lamps can recreate the benefits of sunlight and relieve the symptoms of SAD.

SAD is also covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Renae Ekstrand taught kindergarten from 2000 to 2005 at a public school in northwest Wisconsin, not far from Minneapolis/St. Paul. In the spring of 2005, she asked to be reassigned to teach a first-grade class, and the school agreed. It relocated her to a first-grade classroom with no exterior windows in a busy, noisy area of the building.  Ms. Ekstrand requested a different classroom with windows, but the school principal denied her request.

In fall 2005, Ms. Ekstrand was diagnosed with SAD. Both her psychologist and her primary care physician recommended that she take a leave of absence due to illness.  The leave of absence lasted two school years.  

Two issues arose for the school: whether Ekstrand was emotionally able to come back to work and whether the school was aware she could come back to work. A letter in November 2005 detailed her psychologist’s opinion that natural light was crucial to her recovery and that her classroom without windows had been a major cause of her condition. This letter backed up Ekstrand’s prior conversations with both the district superintendent and the school principal, in which she had communicated the importance of natural light to her recovery. Ekstrand sued under the ADA.

This case was appealed twice, once by each side. The first time, the School District filed for summary judgment and won at the trial court level. Ekstrand appealed, and the 7th Circuit ruled that there were enough disputed material facts for a jury to decide. The case went back to trial, and Ekstrand won.

Now it was the school district’s turn to appeal. There were two issues in dispute: (1) whether there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that Ekstrand was a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA, and (2) whether there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that the school district knew of that disability within the relevant time period.

In the first situation, Ekstrand had to convince the jury that she was a qualified individual with a disability; that the school district was aware of her disability; and that the school district failed to reasonably accommodate that disability. The 7th Circuit ruled that the jury had found that the facts supported her case; therefore the court could not overturn the jury’s verdict.

As for the school district knowingly failing to accommodate her disability, the 7th Circuit found that the principal and superintendent were on notice of her disability in a timely way, and again refused to overturn the jury’s judgment.

The takeaway from this case for HR professionals is that Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is considered a disability for ADA purposes.  If an employee who is working in an area without natural light complains about this problem, make sure that medical practitioners supply all the necessary documentation.  Do not deny any reasonable accommodation out of hand as the defendants in this case did.  If there are no spaces that are near windows for the employee to use, consider special lamps that could provide the same benefit. Confirm it with the employee’s doctor.  Or consider giving the employee additional break time to go outdoors and get a boost from the natural light, if possible.

More questions about SAD and the ADA?  Ask An Expert for free!

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