Md. high court: Allergy is a handicap

Jessica M. Karmasek Jan. 31, 2012, 1:17pm

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Legal Newsline) - The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled last week that a lower court's jury was presented with "sufficient evidence" to determine that a woman suffering from a latex allergy was the victim of discrimination.

The plaintiff, Lisa Meade, had filed a lawsuit against her son's school, Children's Manor Montessori School, for allegedly discriminating against her and her son because of her handicap.

Meade was first diagnosed with a latex allergy in 1997 or 1998. Her reactions to the material included itchy skin, nose and eyes; swelling of the eyes, lips and throat; sneezing; chest pain; shortness of breath and wheezing.

She also had allergic reactions when she interacted with someone, or something, who had come into contact with latex.

In particular, powdered latex gloves were a danger to Meade. The latex particles attach to the powder in the gloves, so when a person puts the gloves on, the powder and the particles become airborne.

It wasn't until 1999 that Meade found out that teachers at her two-year-old son's school were using the powdered latex gloves when changing diapers.

To help, she brought in boxes of non-latex vinyl gloves for the teachers to use on her son, along with non-powdered latex gloves.

She also talked to the school's administrator, Dr. Pradip K. Ghosh, about her allergy. She explained her concerns about the powdered latex gloves and asked the school to change to powder-free, at least.

Ghosh told Meade he would look into the situation.

Meade also followed up with a letter from an occupational doctor, explaining the hazards of using the gloves.

Soon after the letter was sent, Ghosh told her the school would not make the changes she requested.

The school, he said, did not want to change its supplier. Instead, he told Meade the staff would not use the latex gloves while changing her son, and Meade could pick up her son at the school's front desk to avoid any exposure.

Unsatisfied, Meade sent Ghosh another letter.

Three days later, Ghosh responded, asking Meade to withdraw her son from the school, citing a clause in the school's contract that allowed it to ask any student to withdraw at any time for any reason the administration "feels sufficient."

Soon after, Meade filed a complaint with the Howard County Office of Human Rights and eventually a lawsuit in Howard County Circuit Court, seeking money damages and counsel fees against the school.

In addition to her charges of discrimination, Meade also claimed that the school had unlawfully retaliated against her request for accommodations by requesting that she withdraw her son.

The school, on the other hand, argued Meade's allergy to latex did not constitute a "handicap" under the county code's definition of the term.

It also contended that the term "handicap" should be narrowly construed in accordance with several federal cases that established a strict and demanding standard for the term "disability" as used in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

A jury subsequently returned a special verdict in favor of Meade.

It found, specifically, that she had "a physical or mental impairment which substantially limit(ed) one or more of (her) major life activities," that she had been denied the accommodations of the school because of discrimination, and that the school had retaliated against her.

The jury awarded her $1,683 in economic damages, $5,000 in non-economic damages and $22,800 in attorney fees.

The school appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. That court reversed the circuit court's judgment.

Meade then petitioned the state's high court for a writ of certiorari.

On Thursday, the Court said in its 20-page opinion that the evidence in the case "clearly supports" the jury's conclusion that Meade's latex allergy was a handicap that damaged, weakened or diminished her ability to interact with her son at school and to socialize with the teachers and other students.

"Meade repeatedly emphasized during her testimony that she wished to play a larger role in her son's education. As she wrote in a letter to Dr. Ghosh, she wanted to 'enter the building, see his classroom, meet with his teachers, and attend functions,' but she was unable to do so for fear of her allergic reactions," wrote Justice John C. Eldridge, who is retired but was specially assigned to the case.

Eldridge said because her allergy was an impairment that substantially limited her "major life activities," there, indeed, was a "handicap" within the meaning of the Howard County Code.

He said the evidence also supported the jury's finding that Meade was denied accommodations by the school because of her handicap.

That, he said, constituted discrimination in violation of the county code.

The Court remanded the case to the Court of Special Appeals with directions to affirm the judgment of the circuit court and to remand the case to the circuit court for consideration of Meade's request for attorney fees.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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