Ex-worker Sues Panera for Discrimination Over Peanut and Nut Allergies

in Food Allergy
Published: November 23, 2015

A 26-year-old man with multiple food allergies, including peanuts and tree nuts, is suing his former employer, Panera LLC, a division of Panera Bread Co., for discrimination that led to “severe, pervasive and dangerous harassment” and a hostile work environment.

Dustin Maldonado, who now lives in Troy, New York, says that when he worked in the company’s bakery-café in Vestal, New York (near Binghamton), his general manager and coworkers often taunted him about his allergy, exposed him to peanuts, tricked him into biting into a nut-containing cookie, and even teased that his EpiPen would spread AIDS. In the suit, Maldonado’s lawyers contend that “the harassment was not only tolerated by management, but led by management.”

Panera LLC and its lawyers did not respond to calls or emails asking for comment on the allegations.

The complaint, filed November 12 in New York federal district court, outlines several examples of behavior that Maldonado claims he endured, and which made him fear for his safety. In one incident, the complaint alleges coworkers tricked Maldonado into biting into a cookie that contained pecans, telling him they were nut-free. In another, a manager allegedly placed peanut butter near the café’s office door as a prank on Maldonado.

The complaint also describes an incident in November 2013 in which the café’s general manager called Maldonado into his office and told him that the staff had made him dinner. The manager allegedly asked Maldonado to put out his hands and then poured Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups into his hands.

According to Maldonado’s lawyer, Mary Vargas of Stein & Vargas, LLP, her client began to feel an allergic reaction in his throat and chest. He immediately washed his hands and took Benadryl, and his reaction subsided. After that incident, Maldonado made an official complaint with the human resources department at Panera’s headquarters. According to the court documents filed with the court, the representative handling the complaint told Maldonado he should have more of a sense of humor.

The lawsuit says that, shortly after filing his complaint, Maldonado was forced to transfer to another corporate-owned Panera location, 120 miles from his home. It further says that Panera “claimed the transfer was mandated because Mr. Maldonado had disclosed a relationship with another employee.”

“I can only call it a campaign of harassment and adult bullying that was focused on his peanut allergy,” Vargas told Allergic Living. “It was humiliating and dangerous. They were literally putting him at risk.”

According to Vargas, Maldonado’s peanut allergy is severe. During one reaction in 2007, Maldonado required a defibrillator, was intubated and spent time in the intensive care unit. She describes Maldonado as a good employee who tried to do the right thing.

Maldonado was not able to comment directly to Allergic Living due to the litigation, but in a press release issued by his lawyers, he said: “All I wanted was to do a good job and feel safe at work. When the taunting and bullying turned into threats to my health and even my life, I realized I had to find a way to make it stop – for myself and others with same disability.”

As is the process in such cases, a complaint was first filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and with the New York State Division of Human Rights. In September, the Division of Human Rights found probable cause that Panera LLC engaged in the alleged discriminatory practices, and Maldonado was granted the right to sue in federal court by both bodies.

The statement claims Maldonado’s right to not be discriminated against because of his disability (peanut allergy) were violated under both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the New York State Human Rights Law.

While Panera has yet to offer its response to its former employee’s statements, Vargas called the alleged behavior “far beyond what is acceptable in labor practices.” She added: “This is one we intend to take very seriously, and, by taking it to federal court, we expect to prevail.”