Iowa appellate court remands tree nut allergy case for further review

Knudsen v. Tiger Tots Cmty. Child Care Ctr., No. 2-1011/12-0700 (Iowa Ct. App. Jan. 9, 2013)

Abstract: In a 2-1 split, the Iowa Court of Appeals has reversed the decision of a state trial court which held that a child’s tree nut allergy did not constitute a disability under the Iowa Civil Rights Act on grounds that the trial court’s analysis was incomplete. In analyzing whether a private day care center had discriminated against a child on the basis of disability when the child was denied admission, the appellate court was persuaded that federal law established the framework for an analysis of “disability” under state law, based on prior state disability case law. In being so persuaded, the appellate court found no dispute that the child’s nut allergy was episodic or in remission. In applying the federal framework, however, the appellate court found that the trial court left unanswered the question of whether the nut allergy would substantially limit a major life activity “when active,” and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings on this issue.

On the other hand, the dissenting judge found that while the pre-amendment ADA and ICRA did mirror each other, Congress’ 2008 amendment of the ADA expanded the scope of the federal law’s definition of a disability. That expansion was not matched by the Iowa legislature. The dissent concluded that because the state legislature chose not to expand the definition of disability to mirror the amended ADA, Iowa courts cannot rely on the amended ADA to determine that a tree nut allergy constitutes a disability under ICRA.

Facts/Issues: Shannon Knudsen contacted Tiger Tots Community Care Center, a private daycare provider, about enrolling her daughter there. After disclosing to Tiger Tots that the child suffers from a tree nut allergy, Knudsen was informed that Tiger Tots could not enroll the child because it lacked the staffing to meet the child’s special needs and attending liability issues. Knudsen filed suit against Tiger Tots, alleging its decision to refuse admission amounted to discrimination on the basis of a disability in violation of ICRA.

A state trial court granted Tiger Tots’ summary judgment motion, concluding that ICRA, unlike the ADA, had not been amended to provide a more expansive reading of the definition of a disability regarding the tree nut allergy. The trial court determined that ICRA “should be interpreted as static and not an evolving law.” Without further analysis of the facts, the trial court concluded as a matter of law that “the physical condition advanced by the plaintiffs does not constitute a disability” under ICRA.

The parents appealed, contending that the trial court erred in granting Tiger Tots’ motion, asserting that the trial court incorrectly determined that the child’s tree nut allergy is not protected by ICRA.

Ruling/Rationale: In a 2-1 vote, the Iowa Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case back to it for further proceedings as to the issue of whether the student’s allergy would substantially limit a major life activity “when active.”

The panel’s majority opinion focused on the “proper role of federal law in [the] evaluation of ‘disability’ under ICRA.” It pointed out that the Iowa Supreme Court had concluded that “[g]iven the common purposes of the ADA and the ICRA’s prohibition of disability discrimination … [it] look[s] to the ADA and underlying federal regulations in developing standards under the ICRA for disability discrimination claims.”

Based on the state supreme court’s reliance on federal law for guidance, the majority was “persuaded that federal law establishes the framework for an analysis of ‘disability’ under state law.” The appellate court first pointed out that the ADA had been amended to state that “[a]n impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active.”

The majority next found the child’s nut allergy was episodic or in remission. However, it then determined that “[a]pplying the federal framework for analysis of disability claims, the question is whether her allergy would substantially limit a major life activity ‘when active.’” Having concluded that the trial court had not considered that question, the majority reversed and remanded for further proceedings on that issue.

The dissenting judge stated that because of the 2008 ADA amendments, ICRA, which has not undergone any similar amendment, “no longer mirrors the federal statute.” The dissenting judge stressed that the court should not “substitute the language of the federal statutes for the clear words of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.” As a result, the dissenting judge stated the appellate court should only look at the pre-2008 federal amendment case law, “as the federal statute at that point was similar to the current Iowa Civil Rights Acts.”

Knudsen v. Tiger Tots Cmty. Child Care Ctr., No. 2-1011/12-0700 (Iowa Ct. App. Jan. 9, 2013)

[Editor's Note: In a January 9, 2013 article by Michelle Corless on the appellate court decision, Julie Jensen, Executive Director of Student Services for the Linn-Mar Community School District (Iowa), commented, "As a public school district, we take and serve all children so we make sure we put those accommodations in place." She also noted that the ADA "talks about what accommodations a child may need to be successful within the classroom and within the school environment." The article pointed out that because Iowa school districts already follow ADA guidelines, they are not worried about the new ruling by the Iowa Court of Appeals.

In November 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which reported that a suit had been filed on behalf a student, identified as T.F., alleging that the Fox Chapel Area School District (FCASD) had violated the federal Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), resulting in “disability-based harassment” of T.F. The suit claims that FCASD failed to adequately address the student’s severe allergy to tree nuts, and subjected him to ridicule by seating him alone in the cafeteria.]

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