According to an Associated Press (AP) report in the Longview Daily News, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently settled a suit with Lesley University in Washington over accommodating students with food allergies. As part of the settlement agreement, the university agreed that severe food allergies can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The agreement leaves schools, restaurants, and other places that serve food more exposed to legal challenges if they fail to honor requests for accommodations by people with food allergies. According to Eve Hill, DOJ Civil Rights Division, colleges and universities are especially vulnerable because they know their students and often require them to eat on campus.
Although the settlement with Lesley drew little attention, it requires the school 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 could not eat the food.
Under the agreement, Lesley University says 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. “We are not saying what the general meal plan has to serve or not,” Hill says. “We are saying that when a college has a mandatory meal plan, they have to be prepared to make reasonable modifications to that meal plan to accommodate students with disabilities.”
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  amendments to the disability law that concerned episodic impairments that substantially limit activity. “By preventing people from eating, they are really preventing them from accessing their educational program,” Hill says of the school and its students.
Source: The Longview Daily News, 1/21/13, By AP
[Editor's Note: In January 2013, Legal Clips summarized a 2-1 split decision of a three-judge panel of the Iowa Court of Appeals in Knudsen v. Tiger Tots Cmty. Child Care Ctr., which reversed the decision of a state trial court holding 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. However, in applying the federal framework, 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.]