‘SAD’ teacher wins ADA case appealA former Somerset teacher with Seasonal Affective Disorder won an appeal to her ADA case against the Somerset School District.
By: Gretta Stark, New Richmond News
In October of 2010, after a five-year legal battle, Renae Ekstrand was awarded about $2 million by a U.S. District Court in a jury trial. Ekstrand thought the court case was over, but the Somerset School District appealed the case.
On June 26, 2012, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s decision to award Ekstrand $2 million from the Somerset School District. Ekstrand will not receive the full $2 million; however, as the ADA caps the amount she can receive in a court award. Ekstrand said the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision was an affirmation for her.
“It was worth it to go through all the pain and the turmoil and public scrutiny,” Ekstrand said.
Ekstrand was a kindergarten teacher at Somerset Elementary school. During the 2005-06 school year Ekstrand said she asked to teach first grade and was given a classroom with no exterior windows, despite telling her principal that she had Seasonal Affective Disorder and needed the natural light in order to function normally.
Ekstrand was diagnosed with SAD in the 1990s. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a seasonal form of depression during which an affected person becomes depressed during a particular season, usually winter. One of the most common treatments involves increased exposure to natural light, or special lights that mimic natural lighting.
Ekstrand said the absence of natural light in her classroom aggravated her SAD symptoms, which affected her teaching ability. She said she experienced fatigue, anxiety, hyper vigilance, tearfulness, racing thoughts and trouble organizing tasks.
Despite repeated requests, Ekstrand said she was not given a room with exterior windows, and took medical leave on Oct. 17, 2005 on her doctors’ advice.
Attorney Tom Rusboldt, who represented the Somerset School District in the court case, said the school district was not aware that Ekstrand had a serious problem until after she was on medical leave.
“She was out on leave before we might have learned that lack of light had something to do with [her illness],” Rusboldt said.
Ekstrand’s attorney, Carol Skinner said Ekstrand followed procedure, and communicated with her principal.
“Ekstrand told her principal at least five times that because of her illness, she would not be able to work in a room without outside windows and was completely ignored,” Skinner said. “This, although there was an available room with outside windows that sat empty the entire school year.”
Rusboldt said the school district was concerned when Ekstrand had to take medical leave.
Ekstrand said she was unable to return to Somerset Elementary School, and sued the school for violating her Americans with Disabilities Act rights.
“Employers do need to consider other disabilities other than physical disabilities,” Ekstrand said. “It’s important for employers to understand that they (mental disabilities) are real and they do need to consider those disabilities as well as physical disabilities.”
Ekstrand now works for a South Dakota school.
Rusboldt said the school district was not discriminating against Ekstrand or her disability.
“They (the Somerset School District) didn’t do anything bad,” said Rusboldt. “They didn’t mistreat an employee. At worst there could have been better communication.”
Rusboldt said Ekstrand did not communicate clearly with the school board, letting them know that she had a mental illness that required treatment with natural light, and he attributes this to her SAD.
“They (the school district) just didn’t appreciate the severity and the cause of what was happening to Renae,” Rusboldt said. “And there really was no basis to hold them responsible for not appreciating either the severity or the cause.”
Skinner said the school board was aware that Ekstrand had a disability and needed to be moved to a classroom with windows to accommodate that disability.
“The continued failure by the school district to accommodate Ekstrand, when an available and free accommodation sat empty was the cause of her inability to return to her teaching position,” said Skinner, “and the need to move herself and her family away from their home in Wisconsin.”
Rusboldt said the school board will not contest the ruling any longer. “The school district does not believe that it did anything wrong,” Rusboldt said. “The courts found otherwise, and we accept the findings of the court.”
Ekstrand said her Skinner told her this case sets a precedent for other cases like it.
“This is why I did this,” Ekstrand said. “Not just for me but for the other people that have depression or any other kind of mental health issue.”
Ekstrand said the whole process has been difficult. Ekstrand and her husband grew up in the area, and she said they were reluctant to move. But Ekstrand needed a job.
“I lost not only my job, I lost my community,” Ekstrand said. “I lost my colleagues, I lost lifelong friends. I lost everything, and basically had to start over.”