Food Allergies May Be Disabilities Requiring Accommodation Under The ADA


The Justice Department’s recently Lesley  University Settlement (Settlement)  announced by the Justice Department on December, 21, 2012 should be a reminder to employers and others covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of the potential advisability of establishing policies or taking other steps to position their practices for providing food in the workplace or at workplace events or to the public to withstand challenge under the ADA.

 While technically referring to only schools, its recognition of some food allergies as disabilities under the ADA makes the Settlement likely to have significant implications for other businesses and organizations regulated by the employment, public accommodation, education or other disability discrimination rules of the ADA under certain circumstances.  Consequently, schools, as well as employers and businesses covered by the ADA should evaluate their practices for offering and providing accommodations for food allergies to minimize their exposure to disability discrimination charges under the ADA in light of the settlement.

Background of Lesley University Settlement

The charges of discrimination against Lesley University resulting in the Settlement challenged a university meal plan that Lesley University required all students living on campus to take part in, and pay for the meal plan.  Lesley University mandated that each student buy the meal service plan – even if some students with severe allergies could not eat the food available through the plan without risk of illness.   The Justice Department charged that Leslie University violated the ADA by failing to appropriate accommodate the special food needs for these students.  The Settlement Agreement resolves Justice Department that Lesley University with illegally discriminating in violation of the ADA by failing to adequately accommodate the special food needs with severe food allergies that constituted a disability under the ADA. 

While the Lesley University Settlement specifically concerned a school meal plan, the Justice Department’s treatment of persons with severe food allergies as disabled within the meaning of the ADA has potential implications for all types of entities regulated by the ADA.  Meanwhile, schools in particular should carefully review the Settlement as the Justice Department says it expects some but all aspects of the Settlement “will serve as a model for other schools – particularly those that require students to participate in a meal plan.” 

Under the Settlement, Lesley University agreed to act to change its food plan to ensure that its students with celiac disease and other food allergies to take advantage of and fully and equally enjoy the university’s food services in compliance with the ADA as well as requires Lesley to consider exempting from its mandatory plan students who cannot, because of disability, take full advantage of the University’s meal service plan.   

Among other things, Lesley University agreed to:

  • Provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options in its dining hall food lines in addition to its standard meal options;
  • Allow students with known allergies to pre-order allergen-free meals;
  • Display notices about food allergies and identify foods containing specific allergens;
  • Train food service and university staff about food allergy-related issues;
  • Provide a dedicated space in its main dining hall to store and prepare gluten-free and allergen-free foods; and
  • Work to retain vendors that accept students’ prepaid meal cards that also offer food without allergens.

Food Allergies as Disability Under ADA

According to the Justice Department, a disability as defined by the ADA is a mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, such as eating. Major life activities also include major bodily functions, such as the functions of the gastrointestinal system. Some individuals with food allergies have a disability as defined by the ADA – particularly those with more significant or severe responses to certain foods. This would include individuals with celiac disease and others who have autoimmune responses to certain foods, the symptoms of which may include difficulty swallowing and breathing, asthma, or anaphylactic shock.

Settlement Implications For Employers, Schools & Other Businesses

Since the ADA has a common disability definition, this means that the recognition of food allergies as a disability likely will be used in other situations involving employers under the ADA’s employment provisions, businesses under the public accommodation provisions or others. 

While the Settlement reflects that food allergies may be disabilities, the Justice Department says the Settlement does not mean that the ADA requires that every place of public accommodation that serves food to the public under all circumstances provide gluten-free or allergen-free food. Accordingly to the Justice Department, the Lesley Agreement involved a mandatory meal program for a defined group of students. Because its meal plan was mandatory for all students living on campus, the Justice Department says the ADA required that the University make reasonable changes to the plan to accommodate students with celiac disease and other food allergies.

The Justice Department has pointed out that the rules governing when accommodation is required are different for schools versus restaurants or others that serve food to the general public.  According to the Justice Department, the public accommodation provisions of the ADA may require a restaurant or other business to take some reasonable steps to accommodate individuals with disabilities where it does not result in “fundamental alteration” of that restaurant’s operations.  Examples of such accommodations might include answering questions from diners about menu item ingredients, where the ingredients are known, or omitting or substituting certain ingredients upon request if the restaurant normally does this for other customers. 

However, the Justice Department has indicated that for purposes of the ADA’s public accommodation provisions, organizations are not required to accommodations that would require that the business to make a “fundamental alteration” to its operations.  For this purpose, the Justice Department has indicated that fundamental alteration is “a modification that is so significant that it alters the essential nature of the good or services that a business offers.” For example, the Justice Department says a restaurant is not required to alter its menu or provide different foods to meet particular dietary needs.  

While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and not the Justice Department has authority for the interpretation and enforcement of the ADA’s employment provisions, employers also can expect that the EEOC and/or private plaintiff’s will follow the lead in arguing that food allergies may qualify as disabilities for purposes of determining when employers serving or offering food in workplaces or at work-related events also may be required to make or offer accommodations to address the special needs of individuals with disabilities.

Although many employers may be tempted to discount the relevance of the Justice Department’s recognition of food allergies as a disability based on pre Americans With Disabilities Act Amendment Act (ADAAA) cases that viewed food allergies as not rising to the level of a disability under the ADA.  Since the ADAAA has greatly expanded the definition of a disability and made it easier for an employee to show that a condition is disabling within the meaning of the ADA, employers are cautioned against assuming that food allergies or other disabilities don’t qualify as disabilities based on pre-ADAAA precedent.

The ADAAA makes it more difficult for employers to establish that food allergies or other medical conditions are not disabilities.  As amended by the ADAAA, the ADA presently extends covers individuals as disabled when they have conditions that are “episodic or in remission,” as long as the condition causes symptoms which affect a “major life activity” when active.

Also, the ADAAA now provides that employers can no longer consider whether an individual could ameliorate the effects of the condition through medication or whether other actions.

In reliance upon these changes, the EEOC now takes the position that allergies producing life-threatening reactions are per se substantially limiting under the ADAAA.

Given the likelihood that the EEOC and private plaintiffs now are likely to assert that individuals affected by food allergies rights to accommodation or other ADA based claims in reliance upon the ADAAA, the settlement is likely to fuel added claims against employers, as well as schools and businesses under the ADA’s public accommodations provisions.  In response to these exposures, schools, businesses and employers should consider whether their existing practices and training of workers about ordering, offering or providing food should be tightened to reduce potential exposures under the ADA.

ADA  Enforcement Obama Administration Enforcement Priority

Since taking office, President Obama has make enforcing and expanding the rights of the disabled in employment, public accommodation, education and transportation  a key priority. 

In his remarks in celebration of Natinal Disability Employment Awareness Month in October 2012, for instance, Mr. Obama said, “[My Administration remains committed to helping our businesses, schools, and communities support our entire workforce. To meet this challenge,… we are striving to make it easier to get and keep those jobs by improving compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.”  See, e.g. October Is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).

Business Faces Growing Employment Disability Exposures

As the Obama Administration has moved to aggressively enforce the ADA, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and other federal disability discrimination laws, it also is making statutory and regulatory changes that make it easier for the government and private plaintiffs to win ADA suits and require businesses, employers and other organizations to update and tighten their practices for dealing with the disabled.

The ADA, for instance, generally prohibits disability discrimination and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to employees’ and applicants’ disabilities as long as this does not pose an undue hardship.  Violations of the ADA can expose businesses to substantial liability. Violations of the ADA may be prosecuted by the EEOC or by private lawsuits.  Employees or applicants that can prove they experienced prohibited disability discrimination under the ADA generally can recover actual damages, attorneys’ fees, and up to $300,000 of exemplary damages (depending on the size of the employer).   

The Obama Administration is relies on provisions of the ADAAA that broadened the definition of “disability” for purposes of the disability discrimination prohibitions of the ADA to make it easier for an individual seeking protection under the ADA to establish that that has a disability within the meaning of the ADA.  The ADAAA retains the ADA’s basic definition of “disability” as an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. However, provisions of the ADAAA that took effect January 1, 2009 change the way that these statutory terms should be interpreted in several ways. Most significantly, the Act:

  • Directs EEOC to revise that part of its regulations defining the term “substantially limits;”
  • Expands the definition of “major life activities” by including two non-exhaustive lists: (1) The first list includes many activities that the EEOC has recognized (e.g., walking) as well as activities that EEOC has not specifically recognized (e.g., reading, bending, and communicating); and (2) The second list includes major bodily functions (e.g., “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions”);
  • States that mitigating measures other than “ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses” shall not be considered in assessing whether an individual has a disability;
  • Clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active;
  • Changes the definition of “regarded as” so that it no longer requires a showing that the employer perceived the individual to be substantially limited in a major life activity, and instead says that an applicant or employee is “regarded as” disabled if he or she is subject to an action prohibited by the ADA (e.g., failure to hire or termination) based on an impairment that is not transitory and minor; and
  • Provides that individuals covered only under the “regarded as” prong are not entitled to reasonable accommodation.

Under the leadership of the Obama Administration, the EEOC and other federal agencies have embraced this charge and have significantly stepped up enforcement of the ADA and other federal discrimination laws.

Recent enforcement, regulatory and other activities by the EEOC show that the EEOC is enthusiastically moving forward to exercise its regulatory and enforcement powers under these enhanced ADA provisions to tighten requirements for employers and to enforce its rules. See e.g.,  Leprino Foods To Pay $550K To Settle OFCCP Charge Pre-Hire Screening Test Illegally Discriminated « As EEOC Steps Up ADA Accommodation Enforcement, New DOD Apple App, Other Resources Released; Wal-Mart Settlement Shows ADA Risks When Considering Employee Return To Work Accommodation Requests & Inquiries; Employer Pays $475,000 To Settle ADA Discrimination Lawsuit Challenging Medical Fitness Testing For EMTs, Firefighters & Other Public Safety Worker’s.

Beyond the generally applicable risks applicable to all employers of more than 15 employees under the ADA employment provisions, federal and state government contractors face more responsibilities and risks because of new rules and enforcement practices under the Obama Administration.

Subject to limited exceptions, government contractors providing services or supplies on ARRA or other government-funded contracts or projects must comply both with generally applicable employment discrimination requirements and special statutory and contractual nondiscrimination, affirmative action, and recordkeeping requirements applicable government contractors. For instance, federal law generally requires government contractors to comply with the special equal employment opportunity requirements of  Executive Order 11246 (EO 11246); Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 503); and the Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA).   Pursuant to these laws, business with the federal government, both contractors and subcontractors, generally must follow a number of statutory and contractual requirements to follow the fair and reasonable standard that they not discriminate in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, national origin, disability or status as a protected veteran. OFCCP generally audits and enforces these requirements. Memo to Funding Recipients: Compliance with Applicable Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity Statutes, Regulations, and Executive Orders.  

OFCCP has made clear that it will conduct compliance evaluations and host compliance assistance events to ensure that federal contractors comply and are aware of their responsibilities under EO 11246, Section 503 and VEVRAA. 

While many government contractors may be tempted to become complacent about OFCCP exposures based on reports of the OFCCP’s relatively low enforcement in the past, see Report Says OFCCP Enforcement Data Show Infrequent Veteran, Disability Bias Findings | Bloomberg BNA recent enforcement data documents OFCCP is getting much more serious and aggressive about auditing and enforcing compliance with its affirmative action and other requirements against government contractors under the Obama Administration.  See, Affirmative Action Update: OFCCP Enforcement Statistics Show Increase in Violations.  The readiness of OFCCP to enforce its rules is illustrated by the settlement of an OFCCP action filed against federal contractor Nash Finch Co. (Nash Finch) announceed last week.  Under the settlement, Nash Finch to pay $188,500 in back wages and interest and offer jobs to certain women applicants who OFCCP charged Nash rejected for the entry-level position of order selector at the company’s distribution facility in Lumberton, Minnesota.  See Settlement of OFCCP Employment Discrimination Charge Reminder To ARRA, Other Government Contractors Of Heightened Enforcement Risks.

These government contractor disability discrimination risks are particularly acute where the government contractor works on or provides supplies on contacts or projects funded in whole or in part by monies provided under ARRA.    When the contract or project in question receives any funding out of the $787 billion of stimulus funding provided by ARRA, special OFCCP rules applicable to ARRA funded projects necessitates that federal contractors exercise special care to understand and meet their responsibilities and manage associated exposures.   See, e.g. Settlement of OFCCP Employment Discrimination Charge Reminder To ARRA, Other Government Contractors Of Heightened Enforcement Risks

GINA & Other Medical Information Nondiscrimination & Privacy Risks

Employers also need to use care to ensure that their hiring and other employment practices, as well as their employee benefits, workers’ compensation and wellness practices are up to date and properly managed to mitigate exposures under laws like the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act (GINA),  the ADA’s medical information privacy requirements,  as well as the privacy and nondiscrimination rules of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act and other relevant federal and state laws.

Signed into law by President Bush on May 21, 2008 and in effect since November 21, 2009, for instance, Title VII of GINA amended the Civil Rights Act to prohibit employment discrimination based on genetic information and to restrict the ability of employers and their health plans to require, collect or retain certain genetic information. Under GINA, employers, employment agencies, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees face significant liability for violating the sweeping nondiscrimination and confidentiality requirements of GINA concerning their use, maintenance and disclosure of genetic information. Employees can sue for damages and other relief like now available under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other nondiscrimination laws.  For instance, GINA’s employment related provisions include rules that:

  • Prohibit employers and employment agencies from discriminating based on genetic information in hiring, termination or referral decisions or in other decisions regarding compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment;
  • Prohibit employers and employment agencies from limiting, segregating or classifying employees so as to deny employment opportunities to an employee based on genetic information;
  • Bar labor organizations from excluding, expelling or otherwise discriminating against individuals based on genetic information;
  • Prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor organizations from requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information of an employee or an employee’s family member except as allowed by GINA to satisfy certification requirements of family and medical leave laws, to monitor the biological effects of toxic substances in the workplace or other conditions specifically allowed by GINA;
  • Prohibit employers, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees from discriminating in any decisions related to admission or employment in training or retraining programs, including apprenticeships based on genetic information;
  • Mandate that in the narrow situations where limited cases where genetic information is obtained by a covered entity, it maintain the information on separate forms in separate medical files, treat the information as a confidential medical record, and not disclosure the genetic information except in those situations specifically allowed by GINA;
  • Prohibit any person from retaliating against an individual for opposing an act or practice made unlawful by GINA; and
  • Regulate the collection, use, access and disclosure of genetic information by employer sponsored and certain other health plans.

These employment provisions of GINA are in addition to amendments to HIPAA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the Public Health Service Act, the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, and Title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act that are effective for group health plan for plan years beginning after May 20, 2009.  Under these HIPAA and GINA rules, health plans generally may not make certain medical inquiries or discriminate against employees or their family members based on family or individual medical history or genetic information.  In addition, health plans and others are required to safeguard personal medical information and may only share that information only under very limited circumstances requiring specific documentation be in place and that the parties can prove that the access and use of that information is appropriately restricted.  Violation of these and other rules can have significant civil and in some cases even criminal liabilities for companies, plans, plan fiduciaries and company officials that take part in violations of these rules.

Businesses Should Act To Manage Risks

The ADAAA amendments, the Rehabilitation Act’s expanded reach, and the Obama Administration’s emphasis on enforcement make it likely that businesses generally will face more disability claims from a broader range of employees and will have fewer legal shields to defend themselves against these claims. These changes will make it easier for certain employees to qualify and claim protection as disabled under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and other disability discrimination laws. 

All U.S. businesses should review and tighten the adequacy of their existing compliance and risk management practices to promote and document compliance.  These efforts should focus on all relevant hiring, recruitment, promotion, compensation, recordkeeping and reporting policies and practices internally, as well as those of any recruiting agencies, subcontractors or other business partners whose actions might impact on compliance.

In light of these and other developments and risks, businesses generally should act cautiously when dealing with applicants or employees with actual, perceived, or claimed physical or mental impairments to minimize exposures under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act and other laws.  Management should exercise caution to carefully and appropriately assess and identify the potential legal significance of physical or mental impairments or conditions that might be less significant in severity or scope, correctable through the use of eyeglasses, hearing aids, daily medications or other adaptive devices, or that management might be tempted to assume fall outside the ADA’s scope.  

Likewise, businesses should be ready for the EEOC, OFCCP and the courts to treat a broader range of disabilities, including those much more limited in severity and life activity restriction, to qualify as disabling for purposes of the Act. Businesses should assume that a greater number of employees with such conditions are likely to seek to use the ADA as a basis for challenging hiring, promotion and other employment decisions.  For this reason, businesses generally should tighten job performance and other employment recordkeeping to enhance their ability to demonstrate nondiscriminatory business justifications for the employment decisions made by the businesses.

Businesses also should consider tightening their documentation regarding their procedures and processes governing the  collection and handling records and communications that may contain information regarding an applicant’s physical or mental impairment, such as medical absences, worker’s compensation claims, emergency information, or other records containing health status or condition related information.  The ADA generally requires that these records be maintained in separate confidential files and disclosed only to individuals with a need to know under circumstances allowed by the ADA. 

As part of this process, businesses also should carefully review their employment records, group health plan, family leave, disability accommodation, and other existing policies and practices to comply with, and manage exposure under  the genetic information nondiscrimination and privacy rules enacted as part of GINA, the health care privacy rules of the HIPAA, and the medical record privacy rules of the ADA.  Particular care should be used when planning wellness, health risk assessment, work-related injury, family or other medical leave or related programs, all of which raise particular risks and concerns.

In the face of the rising emphasis of OFCCP, the EEOC and other federal and state agencies on these audit and enforcement activities, government contractors should exercise additional compliance and risk management efforts beyond these generally recommended steps.   Among other things, these steps should include the following:

  • Government contractors and subcontractors should specifically review their existing or proposed contracts and involvements to identify projects or contracts which may involve federal or state contracts or funding that could trigger responsibility.  In this respect, businesses should conduct well-documented inquiries when proposing and accepting contracts to ensure that potential obligations as a government contractor are not overlooked because of inadequate intake procedures. Businesses also should keep in mind that ARRA and other federal program funds often may be filtered through a complex maze of federal grants or program funding to states or other organizations, which may pass along government contractor status and liability when subcontracting for services as part of the implementation of broader programs.  Since the existence of these obligations often is signaled by contractual representations in the contracts with these parties, careful review of contractual or bid specifications and commitments is essential.  However, it also generally is advisable also to inquire about whether the requested products or services are provided pursuant to programs or contracts subject to these requirements early in the process. 
  • In addition to working to identify contracts and arrangements that are covered by OFCCP or other requirements, government contractors and other businesses also should reconfirm and continuously monitor the specific reporting, affirmative action, and other requirements that apply to any programs that may be subject to OFCCP requirements to ensure that they fully understand and implement appropriate procedures to comply with these conditions as well as pass along  the obligation to make similarly necessary arrangements to any subcontractors or suppliers that the government contractor involves as a subcontractor. 
  • Throughout the course of the contract, the government contractor also should take steps to maintain and file all required reports and monitor and audit operational compliance with these and other requirements.  
  • The organization should develop and administer appropriate procedures for monitoring and investigating potential compliance concerns and maintaining documentation of that activity.  Any known potential deficiencies or complaints should be promptly investigated and redressed with the assistance of qualified counsel in a prompt manner to mitigate potential risks.
  • Documentation should be carefully retained and organized on a real time and continuous basis to faciliate efficiency and effectiveness in completing required reports, monitoring compliance indicators and responding to OFCCP, EEOC or private plaintiff charges as well as other compliance inquiries.
  • Any audit inquiries or charges should be promptly referred to qualified legal counsel for timely evaluation and response.
  • When available and affordable, management should consider securing appropriate employment practices liability coverage, indemnification from business partners and other liability protection and assurance to help mitigate investigagtion and defense costs.
  • Board members or other senior management should include periodic review of compliance in their agenda.

If you have any questions or need help reviewing and updating your organization’s policies or risks under the Rehabilitation Act, ADA, GINA or other applicable laws, or if we may be of help with regard to any other workforce management, employee benefits or compensation matters, please do not hesitate to contact the author of this update, Board Certified Labor and Employment Attorney and Management Consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer at 469.767.8872.

About The Author

Management attorney and consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer helps businesses, governments and associations solve problems, develop and implement strategies to manage people, processes, and regulatory exposures to meet their business and operational goals and manage legal, operational and other risks. Board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, with more than 25 years human resource, employee benefits and management experience, Ms. Stamer helps businesses manage their people-related risks and the performance of their internal and external workforce though appropriate human resources, employee benefit, worker’s compensation, insurance, outsourcing and risk management strategies domestically and internationally. Recognized in the International Who’s Who of Professionals and bearing the Martindale Hubble AV-Rating, Ms. Stamer also is a highly regarded author and speaker, who regularly conducts management and other training on a wide range of labor and employment, employee benefit, human resources, internal controls and other related risk management matters.  Her writings frequently are published by the American Bar Association (ABA), Aspen Publishers, Bureau of National Affairs, the American Health Lawyers Association, SHRM, World At Work, Government Institutes, Inc., Atlantic Information Services, Employee Benefit News, and many others. For a listing of some of these publications and programs, see here. Her insights on human resources risk management matters also have been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, various publications of The Bureau of National Affairs and Aspen Publishing, the Dallas Morning News, Spencer Publications, Health Leaders, Business Insurance, the Dallas and Houston Business Journals and a host of other publications. Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit and Other Compensation Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and the Legislative Chair of the Dallas Human Resources Management Association Government Affairs Committee, she also serves in leadership positions in many human resources, corporate compliance, and other professional and civic organizations. For more details about Ms. Stamer’s experience and other credentials, contact Ms. Stamer, information about workshops and other training, selected publications and other human resources related information, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at 469.767.8872 or via e-mail here.

Other Helpful Resources & Other Information

If you found these updates of interest, you also be interested in one or more of the following other recent articles published in this electronic Solutions Law publication available for review here including:

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©2012 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.  All other  rights reserved. 

About Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

Management attorney and operations consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer uses a client objective oriented approach to help businesses, governments, associations and their leaders manage performance, operations and risks.
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