JUST THE BLUES OR ARE YOU SAD? REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION OF MENTAL DISORDERS

As the daylight hours wane with the approach of winter, many Americans find it a struggle just coping with their daily lives.  Imagine the sensation of all of your limbs feeling like weights have been attached to them, your brain dulled, and your eyes so heavy you can barely keep them open.  Couple this with a compelling need to shut yourself off from human interaction and you’ll start to get the idea of what SAD is.  Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that is more prevalent in women and begins typically in their 30s.  But it may be much more than just the winter blues that a lot of folks experience.  In fact, it may be a disability.

Mental disorders present a tricky issue for employers because often they aren’t obvious and the means of accommodating them aren’t clear.  In the autumn, employers may see diminished productivity, increased absences, and increased lateness as their employees adjust to shorter periods of daylight and the doldrums which accompany the change in seasons.  While most folks will make the adjustment, those who suffer from a severe form of SAD may not be able to, and the need to make a reasonable accommodation may arise.

There are a few cases I read recently which demonstrate what I mean.  In Ekstrand v. School District of Somerset, the plaintiff moved from teaching kindergarten to teaching first graders, and the transition moved her to an internal classroom with no windows.  She informed her principal that she had SAD, and that the lack of natural light would impair her ability to function as a result.  She requested a classroom with windows.  Other problems with the classroom arose that would exacerbate her symptoms, and the school district worked to remedy those conditions.  Yet, despite the fact that there were two classrooms with windows it could move the plaintiff into, the school district did not do so.

The plaintiff began experiencing fatigue, anxiety, trouble organizing tasks, and other severe symptoms of SAD.  Her doctors recommended that she take a leave of absence.  Throughout her leave, the plaintiff continued to request a classroom with natural light, stating that she could do her job if the change was made.  Her doctor finally sent a letter to the school informing it that exposure to natural light was a necessary treatment for her.  A month later, the plaintiff became completely unable to work, and ultimately, she resigned.

The questions presented to the court both before and after trial (which resolved in plaintiff’s favor this past June) were whether the plaintiff was a qualified individual with a disability and whether the school district reasonably accommodated her disability.  The court found (and the jury agreed) that the plaintiff had presented sufficient evidence of her impairment and her ability to perform the essential functions of her job had she been given a different classroom up to the point she became completely unable to work.

The court then found that the school district – while having made some accommodations to the plaintiff – could have accommodated the classroom switch without undue hardship.  Of course, an employer is not required to provide the specific accommodation requested by an employee if another accommodation enables that employee to perform the essential functions of the job.  Here, the court found that “an employer may not be obligated to provide a specifically requested modest accommodation unless the employer is made aware of its medical necessity to the employee.”

Compare this case to MacGovern v. Hamilton Sunstrand Corp., where the plaintiff also suffered from SAD and was asked to work mandatory overtime.  He brought in a note from his doctor stating that mandatory overtime placed him at risk for a recurrence of his depression.  So, the employer took the plaintiff out of the overtime rotation, both mandatory and voluntary, for six months.  The plaintiff sued, stating that removing all overtime was not a reasonable accommodation because only mandatory overtime impacted his health.

While this plaintiff certainly suffered an impairment, the Court found that he did not rise to the level of a qualified individual with a disability because he could not demonstrate that he was significantly restricted in a major life activity.  While SAD impacted his ability to sleep and work, the impact was not significant.  The plaintiff did not demonstrate that his sleep was any more impacted than the average person in a stressful situation.  And, he was not substantially limited in his ability to work because he could still work forty hour weeks.

The takeaways from these cases are good ones for all employers.  First, you must make individualized assessments of your employees when presented with a request for accommodation.  Second, a reasonable accommodation permits the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, so you must evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodation you provide.  The Job Accommodation Network is an example of a group that provides information on possible accommodations, including ones for SAD.  Finally, pay attention to the information provided by your employee’s doctor.  You don’t want to be the cause of a breakdown in the interactive process.  While both parties need to participate, courts – and juries – will probably look to the employer to take the lead in that effort more often than not.

Vanessa Towarnicky's primary focus is in the area of labor and employment law. She has been involved in representing clients in various employment cases, including sexual harassment; deliberate intent; age, race, and disability discrimination; wrongful discharge; and various other employment-related torts. She is admitted to various state and federal courts as well as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
 
» See more articles by Vanessa L. Towarnicky
» Read the full biography of Vanessa L. Towarnicky at Steptoe & Johnson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *