When a Lesley University student complained in 2009 to the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, that he felt discriminated against due to the lack of safe food alternatives provided by his University-required meal plan, he may not have realized that he was causing a 3 year investigation/negotiation which set a potential precedent for colleges and universities in the United States. The initial complaint was that the meal plan provided a lack of gluten-free and food allergy-friendly options on campus with no opportunity for a meal plan exemption. On December 20, 2012, the Department of Justice announced the voluntary settlement, which has implications for not only educational institutions, but also for restaurants, and other food establishments.
Like Lesley University, most colleges and universities are considered to be "public accommodations" under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). Public accommodations are subject to the nondiscrimination requirements of Title III of the ADA, which prohibits public accommodations from discriminating against any individual on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of public accommodations' goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations. 42 U.S.C. Section 12182. Public accommodations must also make reasonable modifications to their policies, practices, and/or procedures when the modifications are necessary to afford the services to individuals with disabilities, unless the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the services.
Food allergies may constitute a disability under the ADA if they are serious enough to impact a major life activity. For example, people with food allergies may have an allergic food reaction to certain foods, such as nuts, wheat, or dairy that can be extremely severe, or even fatal. In very serious cases, a food allergy sufferer may experience anaphylaxis, which can lead to death. Given the seriousness of food allergies, Lesley University agreed to make many voluntary changes to its policies and procedures to address the concerns of its students. *Source: http://www.justice.gov
While the settlement only applies to Lesley, it potentially sets a precedent in favor of students with food allergies and special dietary needs at schools across the country. Colleges and universities are especially vulnerable to legal challenges for failing to honor requests for accommodations by students with food allergies since they often provide housing for students and require them to eat on campus. If a student has a severe allergic reaction because a school failed to make reasonable accommodations for the student's dietary needs, the school may be liable for the student's injuries and damages.
Most people with food allergies are very careful about the foods they eat. If an individual with a food allergy asks questions about the ingredients of foods that are being served to them, and they are provided incorrect information, the results can be catastrophic.
If you or your friend or family member became ill or had a severe allergic reaction after eating due to a restaurant or school’s negligence, call the food allergy lawyers at White and Williams to explore your legal rights. Our lawyers offer a free initial consultation. 877.944.8396