Williamsburg Appeal: Legal Implications for Food Allergy, Gluten-Free Rights

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in Features, Food Allergy, News, News
Published: June 4, 2019
Mary Vargas

A U.S. Appeals Court ruled on May 31 that it may be necessary and reasonable for an individual who has a disability due to a medically diagnosed diet – such as a gluten intolerance or food allergies – to bring their own food to a restaurant.

This decision now sends the case of a 12-year-old Maryland boy – which had been dismissed last year – off to trial in District Court. The boy, known as J.D., has a severe gluten intolerance and is suing the Colonel Williamsburg historic venue because he was not allowed to eat his own gluten-free on the premises of one of the site’s restaurants, despite having paid the same price as other classmates on this school trip. (Read the article on his case here.)

While the Williamsburg case has yet to be decided, the ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit itself is a big win for individuals with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity or food allergies. Two of the three judges reviewing this appeal wrote the majority decision, which adds pivotal interpretations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the companion ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) in terms of the disability rights of those with medically necessary diets.

To help understand the wider implications, let’s explore key areas covered in the Appeals Court’s decision.

When is a person with a food intolerance or food allergy considered to have a disability and be facing discrimination?

J.D.’s case was originally dismissed in the U.S. District Court (eastern Virginia). While that court found that the boy’s severe non-celiac gluten sensitivity met the standard for a disability, the court said J.D.’s side had not proved that he was discriminated against when he was not allowed to eat the gluten-free chicken sandwich he had brought from home. That court said he could have eaten a gluten-free meal, which the Shields Tavern at the Colonial Willamsburg site had offered to prepare.

In its majority decision, the Appeals Court disagreed. It noted that the ADA sets out that individuals with disabilities must not face discrimination “in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.” (It noted that restaurants are considered places of public accommodation.)

The court also said the ADA’s intent is more than “mere access to public facilities; it guarantees them ‘full and equal enjoyment.'”

The ruling found the plaintiffs’ side had made the case that for J.D. the accommodation was necessary, since he had several times previously become sick, often with severe symptoms, from consuming trace amounts of gluten from “gluten-free” restaurant food.

The ADAAA says the definition of “disability,” includes a condition that “substantially limit the ability of an individual to perform a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population.” The upper court confirmed that “eating is a major life activity.”

“Unlike a person with simple diet restrictions, J.D. must monitor everything he eats,” said the Appeals Court, noting that the boy contends having little if any margin for error.

When is it reasonable to ask for such an accommodation?

The Appeals Court noted that in this case, which involved bringing “outside food” into the colonial tavern, the accommodation was reasonable, as it didn’t cost the venue anything and its staff didn’t need to do anything. (Additionally, J.D. and his father had paid full ticket prices, which included lunch costs.)

One judge on the panel of three judges disagreed. In his dissenting opinion, he suggested the decision would compel Fourth Circuit District restaurants to allow in outside food “in who knows what conditions.” However, the other two judges said the tavern already allowed exceptions to the “no outside food” rule, such as allowing parents to bring in food for babies and toddlers.

So can anyone with allergies or intolerance now bring their own allergy-friendly food to a restaurant?

Not exactly. The ADA is based on individual rights. “There’s no: ‘anybody who has this disability is automatically disabled and automatically gets XYZ accommodation,'” says Mary Vargas, the disability rights lawyer acting for J.D. “What a venue is required to do depends on the individual’s disability and their needs,” she says.

“The decision says while a restaurant could serve gluten-free meals that might be sufficient for lots of people, that for individuals who are acutely sensitive to gluten and to issues of cross-contact, they may need to be able to bring their own safe food – and they have the right to do so,” says Vargas, who is with firm Stein and Vargas, LLP.

Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Photo: Getty

The ADA defines discrimination as “a failure to make reasonable modifications,” but it also provides this exception: unless “making such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of such goods, services,” etc. So while the Appeals Court saw J.D.’s request as reasonable, there might be situations – for example a vegan restaurant – where outside food could be in conflict with the nature of the business, and the courts might support denying such an accommodation.

However, in general, the ruling broadens the interpretation of concepts like “equal enjoyment” and “public accommodation” in favor of those with medically required diets. “This draws a line in the sand and says, ‘yes, these can be disabilities,’ and ‘yes, there are people who need this accommodation in order to have an equal opportunity to access places of public accommodation,'” says Vargas.

Restaurants that in past have never allowed “outside food” may now choose to reconsider, since legal decisions, including this upper court one, are inclining toward a broader need for such disability accommodations. As an expert in the disability rights area, Vargas calls the Appeals Court’s interpretation “huge.”

Will “outside food” accommodations be onerous for restaurants?

They shouldn’t be; at Allergic Living, we expect such requests won’t be that common. Most people with food allergies or celiac disease would prefer to dine on a restaurant’s food in the company of friends or family. They will usually seek out an establishment that can safely accommodate their diet needs.

The Colonial Williamsburg situation in J.D.’s case was different from a normal meal; this was an educational school trip. J.D. didn’t have the option of choosing a different restaurant and still participate with the group outing, plus his history of symptoms from restaurant food was an individual experience.

“Fundamental to the ADA and to this decision is that people with disabilities are part of the community,” notes Vargas, who has a son with celiac disease and food allergies.

“Consider that lots of restaurants already do this really well. They’re seeing that when they serve somebody with a food allergy or celiac disease well, that person returns – with a family for a big meal or they come with friends.”

“It is something that can be viewed as a positive: people with disabilities are good customers and, when they’re treated well, they’re even better customers,” she says.

See also: Appeal an Historic Win for Food Gluten-free, Food Allergy Rights