Refused Seat On Amtrak, Allergic Teen Launches Suit

in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Published: October 20, 2014

Noah Joseph, 13

Update to the following article: The Joseph family’s lawsuit was resolved. Amtrak has altered its policy on “unaccompanied minors” so that those with food allergies are encouraged to have their auto-injectors, but they are no longer denied service. See revised policy here.

Oct. 20, 2014 – A Michigan teenager with peanut allergy has launched a civil rights complaint against Amtrak in relation to its policy on unaccompanied minors with life-threatening food allergies.

Amtrak’s policy on unaccompanied minors, which applies to children aged 13 to 15 traveling without an adult, states that “the unaccompanied child may not have any life-threatening food allergies.” In some school and college cases, life-threatening allergies have been determined to be a disability.

“I would say it is the most clear and explicit example of discrimination I have seen,” says Mary Vargas, the attorney who is representing Michigan teenager Noah Joseph, 13, through his mother Karen Joseph. “It’s as clear as can be; it’s right on their website. Everybody can travel, except a teenager with food allergies. It’s almost unbelievable.”

Noah, who has a severe peanut allergy, was barred from traveling on Amtrak with his 16-year-old brother to visit their grandmother. They wanted to travel to Dearborn from Kalamazoo; a trip that takes less than three hours.

The suit notes that the Amtrak policy is discriminatory in that it “prohibits N.J. [Noah] from accessing Amtrak’s programs, activities and services that are available to all other teenagers,” solely on the basis of his disability. It seeks to make Amtrak change its policy and compensate the Josephs’ for legal costs and damages.

The complaint has been filed under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, U.S. federal laws that are meant to ensure people are not denied services because of disabilities. Amtrak, a public railroad service, is named in the ADA as an entity that must comply with the rules.

“This complaint is about getting a clearly, explicitly discriminatory policy changed, and it’s about this young man standing up for his right to do what other teenagers can do,” says Vargas, a partner at Stein & Vargas LLP and an expert in federal disability law.

The complaint, filed on October 17, 2014, could take years to resolve in federal court, but could also end sooner: it depends on how Amtrak decides to respond. Unlike most U.S. airlines, Amtrak does not have a general policy for travelers with food allergy.

In 2012, such a settlement was reached between Lesley University in Massachusetts and the Department of Justice after students with celiac disease filed a complaint under the ADA because their mandatory meal plans did not accommodate their medically required food restrictions.