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Federal Disabilities Law Leaves Food Servers Vulnerable To Legal Challenges



A settlement stemming from a lack of gluten-free foods available to students at a Massachusetts university could serve as a precedent for people with other allergies or conditions, including peanut sensitivities or diabetes.

People with severe food allergies have a new tool in their attempt to find menus that fit their diet: federal disabilities law. And that could leave schools, restaurants and anyplace else that serves food more vulnerable to legal challenges over food sensitivities, The Washington Post reports.

A settlement stemming from a lack of gluten-free foods available to students at a Massachusetts university could serve as a precedent for people with other allergies or conditions, including peanut sensitivities or diabetes. Institutions and businesses subject to the Americans With Disabilities Act could be open to lawsuits if they fail to honor requests for accommodations by people with food allergies.

Colleges and universities are especially vulnerable because they know their students and often require them to eat on campus, Eve Hill of the Justice Department’s civil rights division says. But a restaurant also could be liable if it blatantly ignored a customer’s request for certain foods and caused that person to become ill, though that case might be harder to argue if the customer had just walked in off the street, Hill said.

The settlement with Lesley University, reached last month but drawing little attention, will require the Cambridge, Mass., institution to serve gluten-free foods and make other accommodations for students who have celiac disease. At least one student complained to the federal government after the school would not exempt the student from a meal plan even though the student couldn’t eat the food.

Under the Justice Department agreement, Lesley University says it will not only provide gluten-free options in its dining hall but also allow students to pre-order, provide a dedicated space for storage and preparation to avoid cross-contamination, train staff about food allergies and pay a $50,000 cash settlement to the affected students.

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 2009 amendments to the disability law that allowed for episodic impairments that substantially limit activity.

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