DOJ: Despite 2012 settlement, celiac disease not necessarily a disability under ADA

By Emma Gallimore | Dec 28, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) - A Department of Justice spokesperson says a 2012 civil rights settlement on behalf of Lesley University students with celiac disease doesn't necessarily make the condition a disability.

Patrick Rodenbush, a public affairs specialist at the DOJ, said the settlement did not set a legal precedent. A California federal judge recently denied a motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit alleging P.F. Chang's violates the Americans with Disabilities Act because it charges more for gluten-free items.

“The Lesley University settlement enforces the rights of students whose food allergies were disabilities,” Rodenbush said. “It doesn’t necessarily make celiac disease a disability in all cases.”

A press release issued by the DOJ in 2012 stated that the agreement with Lesley University, located in Cambridge, Mass., would “ensure that students with celiac disease and other food allergies can fully and equally enjoy the university’s meal plan and food services in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.“

A Question and Answer document released by the DOJ about the Lesley University Agreement states that “some individuals with food allergies have a disability as defined by the ADA - particularly those with more significant or severe responses to certain foods.”

In the P.F. Chang's case, Judge Ronald Whyte denied P.F. Chang’s motion to dismiss because, he wrote, that although the court had not found specific information proving that celiac disease constituted a disability under the ADA, the “plaintiff has pled sufficient facts to support her claim that she has a disability that impacts a major life activity.”

Whyte noted “on a more complete factual record, the court might reach a different conclusion.” He also stated that it may be difficult, or impossible for Phillips to prove her claims.

“The ultimate question is whether P.F. Chang’s, in providing gluten-free meals, is providing different products or whether the price differential with regular meals is a pretext for discrimination against those with celiac disease,” Whyte wrote.

Gluten-free menu items can not include or be exposed to wheat, barley, rye or any hybrid of these grains.

“The evidence may establish that gluten-free items are different products for which defendant can charge what it determines is appropriate,” Whyte wrote. “That would not be discriminating against a customer with celiac disease because the gluten-free meals are offered to all customers at the same price.”

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