The Government Says a Food Allergy May be a "Disability"

Posted by Edward Sharkey on Thu, 05/23/2013 - 04:00

Under some circumstances, food allergies may rise to the level of a disability for purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA"). This was the holding in a recent case involving the U.S. Department of Justice and Lesley University, a private school with campuses in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. The dispute came about after a group of students with Celiac disease (a disorder which can be triggered by the consumption of gluten) made a complaint to the DOJ in 2009.

After an investigation, the DOJ ruled that the school’s food services failed to offer its students reasonable accommodations, in violation of the ADA. Under the act, a disability must “substantially limit[] a major life activity.” In a press release issued after the case was settled, the DOJ stated that a food allergy may be a disability when an affected person would have a “more significant or severe” response to the allergen.

We posted last year about a similar case under Maryland law dealing with a woman's allergy to latex.

As part of the settlement, Lesley University agreed to provide gluten-free foods at the dining hall, allow students with allergies to pre-order meals, display notices warning when foods may contain allergens, and provide a separate area where students with these dietary needs could store and prepare their own foods.

Also of note is that the DOJ went out of its way to clarify that the outcome of this case depended to a large extent on the fact that the Lesley University meal plan was mandatory for students living on campus. The ADA does not necessarily require the same level of accommodations to be made by restaurants or other similar establishments.

The DOJ, unfortunately, has still not provided clear, universal guidance for businesses on the issue of food allergies and disability. The case did prompt the DOJ to release a Q&A document, which is of some instructional value and can be found here.

In the meantime, we continue to monitor the state of the law governing claims under the ADA.

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