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Food Allergies a Disability?

Tom Scott
Executive Director, California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

Recently there was a settlement with Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts that will require the University to serve gluten-free foods and make other accommodations for students who have celiac disease. At least one student had complained to the federal government after the school would not exempt that student from a meal plan even though the student couldn’t eat the food.

Under the agreement, Lesley Univeristy said it will not only provide gluten-free options in its dining hall but will also allow students to pre-order, provide a dedicated space for storage and preparation to avoid contamination, train staff about food allergies, and pay a $50,000 cash settlement to affected students. Seems like quite a settlement for the complaints of one student.

The agreement says that food allergies may constitute a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, if they are severe enough. The definition was made possible under 2009 amendments to the disability law that concerned episodic impairments that substantially limit activity.

Some individuals strongly disagree with the settlement. They do not believe food allergies are severe enough to prevent students from accessing education and believe the costs would be substantial for colleges that are already having to deal with higher tuition costs.

The fact that this was a federal case and that the Justice Department is going to be deciding what kind of meals could be served in a dining hall is ludicrous. The bigger concern I have is the widespread effect this could have. What if a restaurant ignores a request from a patron? Could they be held liable if they do not provide certain foods to customers?

It just seems that when everyone rallied around the Americans with Disability Act more than 22 years ago it was about access. I do not think we realized that it would become the full employment act for trial lawyers. Last week it was child phobia being a disability for a teacher and now this week it is food allergies. We have rats and miniature ponies being viewed as service animals. What next?

Maybe it is time to revisit the Federal ADA. Can there be access without excessive lawsuits?

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