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

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

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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.

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