Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Pay Attention This is Important: Are Food Allergies a Disabilities Under the ADA?

So, severe life threatening food allergies are a qualified disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), right?  Did you know that no federal court has specifically ruled that they are?

Last winter, there was a lot of discussion in the press about the Department of Justice's settlement with Lesley University, in which basically assumed that the students with severe food allergies had qualified disabilities under the ADA.  Q&A Lesley Settlement  But, that was a settlement, which is not binding on courts or other universities.  If it had been a District Court decision, it would be binding on all other courts in that jurisdiction and courts outside the jurisdiction would consider it advisory.  Universities would certainly feel compelled to take notice of a federal court decision.

That is not to say that schools and universities have not taken notice of the settlement, because they have.  But still, if a school decides to take the position that a life threatening food allergy is not a disability qualified under the ADA, there is no decision for a student to rely upon in fighting that decision.  Usually, the problems arise when a school is not saying the student does not have a disability, but the school and the student's parents disagree as to how much must be done to accommodate the student.

In Williams v. Daniels, food allergy parents have sued their son's principal, superintendent, and school district for not adequately protecting their son who is severely allergic to peanuts.  The case is pending in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, case number 12-cv-15387.  In the complaint, the plaintiffs allege, among other things, that

1)   the school agreed on safe popsicles for a treat to be handed out and then, without notice, switched the treat without approval of the parents;

2)   the school reviewed items to be sold as a fundraiser with the food allergy parents, but subsequently the school added items which were not safe and then the day the items were to be picked up by other parents, the food allergy parents were told to pick up their child from school early;

3)  the food allergic child was repetitively bullied by his classmates and the principal refused to take any action to stop the harassment; and

4)  the school sent a note home to all parents, naming the food allergic child by name, which caused retaliation from teachers, staff and other students, blaming the food allergic student for the restrictions on treats and snacks.

Why is this case important?  Because Count I of the complaint alleges a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The District Court is asked to decide whether the severely food allergic child is a "qualified individual" under the ADA.  If the court finds that he is, food allergic kids will have some legal precedent to support protection under the ADA.  If the court finds that severe food allergies are not a protected disability, it could be a devastating blow to the movement towards protecting food allergic kids in schools and elsewhere. 

The case is in the very early stages, so it may not even end in a judgment, if it is settled first.  However, it is interesting to review some of the defenses asserted by the school, such as qualified governmental immunity (not a valid defense in this circumstance), that the food allergic kid "was at all times provided a free appropriate public education," and there are no damages or the damages are de minimis.  It will also be interesting to see what facts come out about the alleged discrimination by the school and the alleged bullying.

I will continue to watch this one and provide any important updates, which I don't expect to happen until 2014 sometime.   


  1. Oh my. I truly thought there had been a ruling. This case could have devastating results!

    Thank you for watching this and taking this on! Our community needs good information like this.

  2. Thanks for providing such pertinent information!