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Jury awards $2 million to former Somerset teacher

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The jury in a U.S. District Court Western District of Wisconsin case has awarded a former Somerset School District teacher $2 million, although the teacher involved won't be receiving the huge pot of money.

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The award for former teacher Renae Ekstrand included $1.76 million for emotional pain and anguish and $242,000 for lost earning capacity.

But because of the small size of the Somerset School District, the actual award for those two legal judgments is capped at $100,000. The school district's insurance carrier will pay that judgment.

Ekstrand also will have her attorney's fees paid for by the district's insurance carriers.

The district does face a payment of $26,828 in back pay to the teacher.

The district's attorney, Tom Rusboldt with the law firm of Weld, Riley, Prenn & Ricci, S.C., said the lawsuit decision will not be a huge burden on local taxpayers, even though the jury returned with a high award.

The judgment caps for Americans with Disabilities Act cases are based on the number of employees a business or governmental units has.

"The idea is not to put anyone out of business," he said.

Ekstrand filed suit against the School District of Somerset under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The federal jury decided in favor of Ekstrand late Monday. On Tuesday the jury came back with the $2 million award.

Ekstrand claimed that the school district failed to accommodate her seasonal affective disorder and discharged her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

During the 2005-06 school year, Ekstrand claimed the school reassigned her to a first-grade classroom lacking exterior windows even though she told her principal that she had seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression, and would have difficulty functioning in a room with artificial light rather than natural light.

During this time there were allegedly two alternate rooms available.

Ekstrand claimed she subsequently began "experiencing fatigue, anxiety, hypervigilance, tearfulness, racing thoughts and trouble organizing tasks" as a result of her room assignment.

She went on medical leave on Oct. 17, 2005. She eventually took a job in South Dakota.

Ekstrand's case was originally thrown out by the federal court, but an appeal to the 7th Court of Appeals paved the way for the eventual trial.

The jury agreed that the school district failed to accommodate Ekstrand's disability.

According to Ekstrand's attorney Carol Skinner, her client wept when the judgment was announced.

"She is so relieved," Skinner said. "Now she knows she wasn't wrong to stand up for her rights. She knows it was all worth it."

Rusboldt said district residents shouldn't be concerned that Somerset has a "systemic problem" that could lead to more lawsuits.

"This was a very unique set of circumstances," he said. "Those circumstances will never repeat themselves."

When trying to deal with mental issues, Rusboldt said, it's difficult for anyone to know what the right course of action should be.

He said the principal in this instance judged the situation and made a decision.

"But the jury thought they should have accommodated her," Rusboldt said.

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