Food Allergies as Disabilities?

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EmpBlog-8.13.2013-FoodAllergiesThe Department of Justice (DOJ) filed claims against Lesley University for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Lesley University maintained a meal plan that was mandatory for all students living on campus.  The DOJ alleged that Lesley University had failed to make reasonable modifications that would have allowed students with food allergies to take advantage of university meal programs.  Certain food allergies, including celiac disease, an autoimmune condition triggered by consumption of the protein gluten, can substantially limit major bodily functions, such as the gastrointestinal system, which qualifies as a major life activity requiring accommodation under the ADA.

The case was settled, with the university agreeing to pay the students $50,000 and establish a policy to provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options in its dining hall.  The university was also required to display notices concerning food allergies, identify foods containing certain allergens and to take other steps that would allow students with allergies to participate in the meal plan system.

The average employer reading this may be somewhat alarmed by the inclusion of food allergies as “disabilities”, but may think nothing more of the issue.  However, consider this:  there are employers across America that provide meals to workers as part of compensation or benefits.  Restaurants, for example, frequently provide workers with meals at the beginning of every shift.  While the circumstances of the Lesley case can certainly be distinguished from a restaurant, there are implications for any business that provides food to its employees or, indeed, the public, which are sure to be played out in the months and the years ahead.  In the meantime, employers should, at minimum, be sensitive to the possibility of engaging in an interactive process with any employee who requests a workplace accommodation in connection with a food allergy.

This blog is presented under protest by the law firm of Ervin Cohen & Jessup LLP.  It is essentially the random thoughts and opinions of someone who lives in the trenches of the war that often is employment law–he/she may well be a little shell-shocked.  So if you are thinking “woohoo, I just landed some free legal advice that will fix all my problems!”, think again.  This is commentary people, a sketchy overview of some current legal issue with a dose of humor, but commentary nonetheless; as if Dennis Miller were a lawyer…and still mildly amusing.  No legal advice here; you would have to pay real US currency for that (unless you are my mom, and even then there are limits).  But feel free to contact us with your questions and comments—who knows, we might even answer you.  And if you want to spread this stuff around, feel free to do so, but please keep it in its present form (‘cause you can’t mess with this kind of poetry).  Big news: Copyright 2013.  All rights reserved; yep, all of them.