Employment Law Report

A Room with a View – The Costly Consequences of Ignoring a Small Request for Accommodation

By Debra H. Dawahare

As everyone knows by now, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires covered employers to offer reasonable accommodations to employees with conditions that substantially limit major life activities.  During the statute’s early history, the courts tended to interpret the definition of “disability” narrowly.  Congress responded with the ADAAA, scolding the courts for their narrow interpretations and requiring employers to assume that almost anyone requesting an accommodation is disabled.

 In a recent federal case, a school district in Wisconsin chose to contest an employee’s claim of disability, and ended up with an adverse trial verdict of almost $2M.  In Ekstran v. School District of Somerset (WI) the complainant was a kindergarten teacher with Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD”), whose assignment to a windowless classroom exacerbated her condition. The symptoms of SAD include depression, fatigue, and panic attacks.

 The teacher provided her employer with medical documentation of her condition, and found another teacher whose classroom had a window, and who was willing to switch with her.  There was also another open classroom with a window.  Rather than allowing Ekstran to switch classrooms, the school district challenged her request for accommodation by saying that she did not have a protected disability.

The jury’s October 2010 award of $1,996,662.00 included $1.75M for emotional suffering.  Plaintiff has moved for, and the court will likely award her, attorney’s fees and prejudgment interest in addition to the jury’s award.

Employers should take every request for accommodations seriously, and recognize that under the ADA as amended, few conditions are too minor to be protected as “disabilities”.