7-10-12; Our Federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision which in essence has determined “seasonal affective disorder” is compensable under the Americans with Disabilities Act

In our view and with respect to the members of the Court, this decision continues a disturbing trend in which U.S. courts continue to find nearly every personal malady in some way compensable. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression, winter blues, summer depression, summer blues, or seasonal depression, is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter or summer, spring or autumn year after year.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), SAD is not a unique mood disorder, but is a specifier of major depression. Although experts were initially skeptical, this condition is now recognized as a common mental disorder. Obviously, there are folks in Wisconsin who don’t agree with that diagnosis.

In Ekstrand v. School District of Somerset, No. 11-1949 (issued June 26, 2012), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the jury’s verdict in favor of Plaintiff in an action under the Americans with Disabilities Act alleging Defendant School District failed to accommodate plaintiff-teacher’s disability by denying her request to switch to classroom that had an exterior window to alleviate Plaintiff’s symptoms of seasonal affective disorder.

The Plaintiff-teacher sued the School District of Somerset, Wisconsin alleging the district failed to accommodate her alleged SAD disability in violation of the statute. The School District moved for summary judgment, which was granted by the Federal District Court. Summary judgment was reversed by the Federal Appellate Court in part, ruling there was a triable issue of fact as whether Plaintiff was a qualified individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA and to whether the school district was aware of the disability.

At trial, while the Defendant-school district pointed to certain evidence at trial that supported its claim Plaintiff was not a qualified individual with disability and the decision-maker was unaware of Plaintiff’s disability, the Court held the jury was free to credit contrary testimony of Plaintiff and her expert witness, who indicated Plaintiff could return to her classroom during relevant time frames, and the decision-maker was aware of her alleged disability.

The Appeals Court ruled Plaintiff had a burden at trial to show

(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 held there was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude Plaintiff did meet that burden. The evidence included her testimony versus the school superintendent and the testimony of her treating doctor.

This case illustrates yet again the importance of responding to complaints of individuals alleging the need for reasonable accommodation. In the instant matter it appears Plaintiff made numerous requests for accommodation to the principal/decision-maker directly, including a letter from her treating doctor which was virtually ignored for nearly a year. The school district tried to attack the sufficiency of the evidence presented, however; it would appear a much stronger tactic to deny the claim would have been to present expert/scientific evidence to rebut the claims. Any effort to later defend or investigate the claim was hampered by the Defendant’s failure to react to the complaints in the first place.

The Federal Appellate Courts have shown us in recent years they will lean to Plaintiffs in these types of actions. It is critically important to respond expeditiously to investigate and move forward on accommodation or other action deemed appropriate. The decision to completely ignore ADA complaints, even with questionable merit, is perilous.

James F. Egan, J.D. researched and wrote this important article. Please do not hesitate to contact Jim directly via email to jegan@keefe-law.com.