ADA May Require Food Allergy Accommodation By Employers, Schools & Businesses

January 25, 2013

The Justice Department’s recently Lesley  University Settlement (Settlement)  announced by the Justice Department on December, 21, 2012 should be a reminder to employers and others covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of the potential advisability of establishing policies or taking other steps to position their practices for providing food in the workplace or at workplace events or to the public to withstand challenge under the ADA.

 While technically referring to only schools, its recognition of some food allergies as disabilities under the ADA makes the Settlement likely to have significant implications for other businesses and organizations regulated by the employment, public accommodation, education or other disability discrimination rules of the ADA under certain circumstances.  Consequently, schools, as well as employers and businesses covered by the ADA should evaluate their practices for offering and providing accommodations for food allergies to minimize their exposure to disability discrimination charges under the ADA in light of the settlement.

Background of Lesley University Settlement

The charges of discrimination against Lesley University resulting in the Settlement challenged a university meal plan that Lesley University required all students living on campus to take part in, and pay for the meal plan.  Lesley University mandated that each student buy the meal service plan – even if some students with severe allergies could not eat the food available through the plan without risk of illness.   The Justice Department charged that Leslie University violated the ADA by failing to appropriate accommodate the special food needs for these students.  The Settlement Agreement resolves Justice Department that Lesley University with illegally discriminating in violation of the ADA by failing to adequately accommodate the special food needs with severe food allergies that constituted a disability under the ADA. 

While the Lesley University Settlement specifically concerned a school meal plan, the Justice Department’s treatment of persons with severe food allergies as disabled within the meaning of the ADA has potential implications for all types of entities regulated by the ADA.  Meanwhile, schools in particular should carefully review the Settlement as the Justice Department says it expects some but all aspects of the Settlement “will serve as a model for other schools – particularly those that require students to participate in a meal plan.” 

Under the Settlement, Lesley University agreed to act to change its food plan to ensure that its students with celiac disease and other food allergies to take advantage of and fully and equally enjoy the university’s food services in compliance with the ADA as well as requires Lesley to consider exempting from its mandatory plan students who cannot, because of disability, take full advantage of the University’s meal service plan.   

Among other things, Lesley University agreed to:

  • Provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options in its dining hall food lines in addition to its standard meal options;
  • Allow students with known allergies to pre-order allergen-free meals;
  • Display notices about food allergies and identify foods containing specific allergens;
  • Train food service and university staff about food allergy-related issues;
  • Provide a dedicated space in its main dining hall to store and prepare gluten-free and allergen-free foods; and
  • Work to retain vendors that accept students’ prepaid meal cards that also offer food without allergens.

Food Allergies as Disability Under ADA

According to the Justice Department, a disability as defined by the ADA is a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as eating. Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as the functions of the gastrointestinal system. Some individuals with food allergies have a disability as defined by the ADA – particularly those with more significant or severe responses to certain foods. This would include individuals with celiac disease and others who have autoimmune responses to certain foods, the symptoms of which may include difficulty swallowing and breathing, asthma, or anaphylactic shock.

Settlement Implications For Employers, Schools & Other Businesses

Since the ADA has a common disability definition, this means that the recognition of food allergies as a disability likely will be used in other situations involving employers under the ADA’s employment provisions, businesses under the public accommodation provisions or others. 

While the Settlement reflects that food allergies may be disabilities, the Justice Department says the Settlement does not mean that the ADA requires that every place of public accommodation that serves food to the public under all circumstances provide gluten-free or allergen-free food. Accordingly to the Justice Department, the Lesley Agreement involved a mandatory meal program for a defined group of students. Because its meal plan was mandatory for all students living on campus, the Justice Department says the ADA required that the University make reasonable changes to the plan to accommodate students with celiac disease and other food allergies.

The Justice Department has pointed out that the rules governing when accommodation is required are different for schools versus restaurants or others that serve food to the general public.  According to the Justice Department, the public accommodation provisions of the ADA may require a restaurant or other business to take some reasonable steps to accommodate individuals with disabilities where it does not result in “fundamental alteration” of that restaurant’s operations.  Examples of such accommodations might include answering questions from diners about menu item ingredients, where the ingredients are known, or omitting or substituting certain ingredients upon request if the restaurant normally does this for other customers. 

However, the Justice Department has indicated that for purposes of the ADA’s public accommodation provisions, organizations are not required to accommodations that would require that the business to make a “fundamental alteration” to its operations.  For this purpose, the Justice Department has indicated that fundamental alteration is “a modification that is so significant that it alters the essential nature of the good or services that a business offers.” For example, the Justice Department says a restaurant is not required to alter its menu or provide different foods to meet particular dietary needs.  

While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and not the Justice Department has authority for the interpretation and enforcement of the ADA’s employment provisions, employers also can expect that the EEOC and/or private plaintiff’s will follow the lead in arguing that food allergies may qualify as disabilities for purposes of determining when employers serving or offering food in workplaces or at work-related events also may be required to make or offer accommodations to address the special needs of individuals with disabilities.

Although many employers may be tempted to discount the relevance of the Justice Department’s recognition of food allergies as a disability based on pre Americans With Disabilities Act Amendment Act (ADAAA) cases that viewed food allergies as not rising to the level of a disability under the ADA.  Since the ADAAA has greatly expanded the definition of a disability and made it easier for an employee to show that a condition is disabling within the meaning of the ADA, employers are cautioned against assuming that food allergies or other disabilities don’t qualify as disabilities based on pre-ADAAA precedent.

The ADAAA makes it more difficult for employers to establish that food allergies or other medical conditions are not disabilities.  As amended by the ADAAA, the ADA presently extends covers individuals as disabled when they have conditions that are “episodic or in remission,” as long as the condition causes symptoms which affect a “major life activity” when active.

Also, the ADAAA now provides that employers can no longer consider whether an individual could ameliorate the effects of the condition through medication or whether other actions.

In reliance upon these changes, the EEOC now takes the position that allergies producing life-threatening reactions are per se substantially limiting under the ADAAA.

Given the likelihood that the EEOC and private plaintiffs now are likely to assert that individuals affected by food allergies rights to accommodation or other ADA based claims in reliance upon the ADAAA, the settlement is likely to fuel added claims against employers, as well as schools and businesses under the ADA’s public accommodations provisions.  In response to these exposures, schools, businesses and employers should consider whether their existing practices and training of workers about ordering, offering or providing food should be tightened to reduce potential exposures under the ADA.

If you have any questions or need help reviewing and updating your organization’s employment and/or employee practices in response to the ADAAA, GINA or other applicable laws, or if we may be of assistance with regard to any other workforce management, employee benefits or compensation matters, please do not hesitate to contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

About The Author

Management attorney and consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer helps businesses, governments and associations solve problems, develop and implement strategies to manage people, processes, and regulatory exposures to achieve their business and operational objectives and manage legal, operational and other risks. Board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, with more than 20 years human resource and employee benefits experience, Ms. Stamer helps businesses manage their people-related risks and the performance of their internal and external workforce though appropriate human resources, employee benefit, worker’s compensation, insurance, outsourcing and risk management strategies domestically and internationally. Recognized in the International Who’s Who of Professionals and bearing the Martindale Hubble AV-Rating, Ms. Stamer also is a highly regarded author and speaker, who regularly conducts management and other training on a wide range of labor and employment, employee benefit, human resources, internal controls and other related risk management matters.  Her writings frequently are published by the American Bar Association (ABA), Aspen Publishers, Bureau of National Affairs, the American Health Lawyers Association, SHRM, World At Work, Government Institutes, Inc., Atlantic Information Services, Employee Benefit News, and many others. For a listing of some of these publications and programs, see here. Her insights on human resources risk management matters also have been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, various publications of The Bureau of National Affairs and Aspen Publishing, the Dallas Morning News, Spencer Publications, Health Leaders, Business Insurance, the Dallas and Houston Business Journals and a host of other publications. Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit and Other Compensation Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and the Legislative Chair of the Dallas Human Resources Management Association Government Affairs Committee, she also serves in leadership positions in many human resources, corporate compliance, and other professional and civic organizations. For more details about Ms. Stamer’s experience and other credentials, contact Ms. Stamer, information about workshops and other training, selected publications and other human resources related information, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at 469.767.8872 or via e-mailto  cstamer@solutionslawyer.net

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com including:

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©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


Employer Deadline To Give ACA Notice of Exchange Coverage Options Delayed

January 25, 2013

The Department of Labor has extended the deadline for employers to notify employees about the existence of and their rights under the health exchanges required by new Section 18B of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), as added by Section 1512 of the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The extension announced in Frequently Answered Question (FAQ) here provides a welcome temporary reprieve to employers who otherwise would have been required to notify employees by March 1, 2013.

As part of the impending implementation of ACA’s health care reform, FLSA § 18B generally requires each applicable employer provide each employee a written notice (Exchange Notice) in accordance with regulations promulgated by the Secretary of Labor:

  • Informing the employee of the existence of Exchanges including a description of the services provided by the Exchanges, and the way the employee may contact Exchanges to request assistance; 
  • If the employer plan’s share of the total allowed costs of benefits provided under the plan is less than 60 percent of such costs, that the employee may be eligible for a premium tax credit under section 36B of the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) if the employee purchases a qualified health plan through an Exchange; and
  • If the employee purchases a qualified health plan through an Exchange, the employee may lose the employer contribution (if any) to any health benefits plan offered by the employer and that all or a portion of such contribution may be excludable from income for Federal income tax purposes. The Department of Labor expects that the timing for distribution of notices will be the late summer or fall of 2013, which will coordinate with the open enrollment period for Exchanges. 

Before the Department’s announcement in the FAQ, the deadline for employers to begin giving employees Exchange Notices was the later of March 1, 2013 or at the time of hiring. The FAQ extends this deadline until a date to be set by the Department in future guidance, which the Department expects will require employers to distribute the notices in the late summer or fall of 2013 to coordinate with the open enrollment period for Exchanges. 

According to the announcement of the delay, the Department delayed the impending March 1, 2013 deadline to give the (Exchange Notice) to better coordinate with related Health and Human Service and Internal Revenue Service efforts and to allow more time to comply and to distribute the Exchange Notices to employees at a meaningful time. 

In addition to providing added time to provide the Exchange Notice, the Department also has announced that it is considering providing model, generic language that employers could use to provide the Exchange Notice. to satisfy the notice requirement.  As a compliance alternative, the Department also is considering allowing employers to meet the Exchange Notice requirement by providing employees with information using the employer coverage template as discussed in the preamble to the Proposed Rule on Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Programs, and Exchanges: Essential Health Benefits in Alternative Benefit Plans, Eligibility Notices, Fair Hearing and Appeal Processes for Medicaid and Exchange Eligibility Appeals and Other Provisions Related to Eligibility and Enrollment for Exchanges, Medicaid and CHIP, and Medicaid Premiums and Cost Sharing (78 FR 4594, at 4641), which will be available for download at the Exchange web site as part of the streamlined application that will be used by the Exchange, Medicaid, and CHIP. 

The Exchange Notice is just one of a multitude of notices and other mandates that ACA requires that employers or their health plans, insurers, or both to meet.  Although the Exchange Notice gives employers a little more time to provide the Exchange Notices, employer and other health plan sponsors, fiduciaries, administrators and insurers are urged to continue to diligently move forward to update their plans, communications, processes and other arrangements to comply with existing and impending ACA mandates while keeping a watchful eye on for additional guidance that may require additional tailoring of these arrangements. 

Stay tuned for updates about future guidance on complying with the notice requirement under FLSA section 18B and other developments.

For Help With Compliance, Risk Management, Investigations, Policy Updates Or Other Needs

If you need help with other health and health plan related regulatory policy or enforcement developments, or to review or respond to these or other human resources, employee benefit, or other compliance, risk management, enforcement or management concerns, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Nationally recognized for her extensive work, publications and leadership on HIPAA and other privacy and data security concerns, Ms. Stamer has extensive experience representing, advising and assisting health care providers, health plans, their business associates and other health industry clients to establish and administer medical and other privacy and data security, employment, employee benefits, and to handle other compliance and risk management policies and practices; to investigate and respond to OCR and other enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns. She regularly designs and presents HIPAA and other risk management, compliance and other training for health plans, employers, health care providers, professional associations and others.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, State Bar of Texas and American Bar Association, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, the Former Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee, an ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, Ms. Stamer serves as the scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits agency meeting with OCR. Ms. Stamer also regularly works with OCR and other agencies, publishes and speaks extensively on medical and other privacy and data security, health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns.  Her publications and insights  on HIPAA and other data privacy and security concerns appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.   For instance, Ms. Stamer for the third year will serve in 2013 as the appointed scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Agency meeting with OCR.  Her insights on HIPAA risk management and compliance often appear in medical privacy related publications of a broad range of health care, health plan and other industry publications Among others, she has conducted privacy training for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans (ASTHO), the Los Angeles Health Department, SHRM, HIMMS, the American Bar Association, the Health Care Compliance Association, a multitude of health plan, insurance and financial services, education, employer employee benefit and other clients, trade and professional associations and others.  You can get more information about her HIPAA and other experience here.

In addition to this extensive HIPAA specific experience, Ms. Stamer also is recognized for her experience and skill aiding clients with a diverse range of other employment, employee benefits, health and safety, public policy, and other compliance and risk management concerns. 

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a member of the Editorial Advisory Board and expert panels of HR.com, Employee Benefit News, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, and Solutions Law Press, Inc., management attorney and consultant Ms. Stamer has 25 years of experience helping employers; employee benefit plans and their sponsors, administrators, fiduciaries; employee leasing, recruiting, staffing and other professional employment organizations; and others design, administer and defend innovative workforce, compensation, employee benefit  and management policies and practices.   Ms. Stamer often has worked, extensively on these and other workforce and performance related matters.  In addition to her continuous day-to-day involvement helping businesses to manage employment and employee benefit plan concerns, she also has extensive public policy and regulatory experience with these and other matters domestically and internationally.  A former member of the Executive Committee of the Texas Association of Business and past Government Affairs Committee Legislative Chair for the Dallas Human Resources Management Association, Ms. Stamer served as a primary advisor to the Government of Bolivia on its pension privatization law, and has been intimately involved in federal, state, and international workforce, health care, pension and social security, tax, education, immigration, education and other legislative and regulatory reform in the US and abroad.  She also is recognized for her publications, industry leadership, workshops and presentations on these and other human resources concerns and regularly speaks and conducts training on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other national and local publications. For more information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to get access to other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly. 

For help  with these or other compliance concerns, to ask about compliance audit or training, or for legal representation on these or other matters please contact Ms. Stamer at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested in exploring other Solutions Law Press, Inc. ™ tools, products, training and other resources here and reading some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ human resources news here including the following:

©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™  All other rights reserved.


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