Student with Celiac Sues University over Gluten-Filled Meals

in Celiac, College Corner, Food Allergy News, News
Published: February 26, 2020
Hannah Smith was assured that the dining staff at UMD's College Park campus were fully trained on gluten-free protocols, including avoiding food cross-contact.
Hannah Smith

Hannah Smith was excited to earn admission to the University of Maryland as a junior in the summer of 2017. But since she has celiac disease and would be required to take the college meal plan, Smith and her parents met face-to-face with the university’s head chef and nutritionist before she accepted. The family was assured the dining staff at UMD’s College Park campus were fully trained on gluten-free protocols, including avoiding food cross-contact.

With the assurances, Smith enrolled. But the college dream turned into a year-long health ordeal. Smith says she suffered three severe celiac attacks that first year at UMD – from repeatedly being served food containing gluten. Plus, there were other instances where she didn’t trust that her food was gluten-free.

The young woman, who’s 23, is now suing the university for discriminating against her on the basis of disability. Her lawsuit claims the university failed “to make reasonable modifications to ensure that she has an opportunity equal to that of classmates to eat safe food prepared by UMD and offered to students.”

Smith told Allergic Living in a phone interview that she has filed state and federal lawsuits against UMD to “make sure nobody else experiences this.” She described spending her freshman and sophomore years at a community college – in part because she “was afraid of going to a big college.” But when she committed to UMD and met with them to tour the dining hall, “I felt comfortable. They said all the things I wanted to hear.”

Double Glutening in One Day

The lawsuit spells out Smith’s health woes. The trouble began in the fall 2017 semester, when she was told the cereal she was served for breakfast was gluten-free. But it wasn’t. She reports vomiting so intensely afterward that blood vessels burst in her face, and she suffered brain fog and difficulty walking. That same day, while ill, she requested gluten-free vegetable soup – a “sick meal” option she could take to her room. The soup was meant to be safe, but actually included barley, which contains gluten protein and must be avoided by those with celiac disease.

She went back to dining services and was shown the label, which confirmed her suspicion. On the way back to her dorm, Smith says in her lawsuit that she was so ill she began vomiting uncontrollably and even soiled herself.

She phoned her father, who called UMD Chef John Gray. The lawsuit says he stressed to the chef that, for the sake of his daughter’s health, anyone handling her food needed to understand gluten-free protocols. The suit says he told the chef his daughter was an honors student whose studies were being affected because of illness related to gluten.

According to Smith’s complaint, a few days after this double exposure to gluten, she returned to the dining hall to pick up gluten-free toast she had requested for breakfast. Upon her arrival, a staff member gave her blackened toast with the following note: “I got called on the carpet because nobody told me that [barley] malt had gluten in it. Here’s your breakfast. I hope you enjoy your ‘gluten-free’ toast.” Smith says in her complaint that not only was the toast inedible, she was afraid to eat it.

Gluten Sends Her to Hospital

Smith’s worst episode was yet to come when she picked up hash browns from the dining hall that were supposed to be gluten-free but instead contained wheat. Smith says she became severely ill and was vomiting violently. She tried to call her parents but couldn’t speak. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance, and the suit describes her falling in and out of consciousness and continuing to vomit for several hours, causing trauma to her body. Her lawsuit says she missed six days of classes, and even after that struggled to return.

Mary Vargas, the disability attorney handling Smith’s case, told Allergic Living that her client has filed one complaint with the state of Maryland because UMD is a state university. The complaint’s contentions include that UMD failed to uphold its duty of care, negligently breached its contract, and inflicted emotional distress. Smith’s second complaint is a federal claim for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Asked for its response to the allegations, UMD’s media relations manager told Allergic Living the university will not comment on litigation. The manager referred questions to the Maryland Attorney-General’s office representing the university, which has not responded to Allergic Living.

In our interview, Vargas stressed that the impact of gluten exposure on someone like Hannah can extend well beyond immediate symptoms. As with severe allergic reactions, “you can develop anxiety around food – PTSD in some cases.”

“With celiac, there also are long-term physical consequences: risks like intestinal cancer and other diseases, poor nutrition, and infertility. Exposure also can cause a celiac rash, as it did for Hannah. It can cause you to feel terrible for a long time. Hannah suffered exposure four times –– that is a lot,” says Vargas, whose firm Stein & Vargas regularly handles cases related to food allergy and celiac disease rights. 

Avoiding Meal Plan Food

In her complaints, Smith says her father called Chef Gray after each incident to reiterate the need for gluten-free food and proper protocols. UMD assured the Smith family that staff had been and would continue to be trained on gluten-free food preparation, storage and service – including cross-contact risks.

Smith said in our interview that she would see Chef Gray a few times a semester. She wouldn’t always get to communicate with him because “dining halls are so busy.” However, she was assured the staff were trained as well as the chefs. She recalls the chef telling her on one occasion: “’We have some new hires, we are training.’ This scared me. Why would he let them handle my food if they hadn’t already been trained?”

After the episodes, Smith no longer trusted the dining hall meals she was paying for, and says a UMD physician even advised her not to eat any more of this food. She decided to take care of her own food, though it wasn’t easy.

“What I ended up doing is walking off campus and buying things. Or I would email Chef Gray that I needed packaged foods – things that nobody could tamper with like prepackaged tuna or peanut butter – because I didn’t trust them.” With no car, she says she “often had to walk miles to buy safe food.”

In order to attend UMD for her senior year, Smith says in her complaint she had to switch out of dormitory housing to live in more expensive university apartments. This gave her access to a kitchen to prepare her own food. UMD did not refund any money for the meal plan, and charged her a higher fee for an apartment with a kitchen.  

A Graduate’s Ambition

“I was hesitant at first to file a complaint, but it was such a rough year,” Smith said on our call. “That’s the main reason I’m going forward; I don’t want anyone else to experience this.”

Despite this experience, Hannah Smith is a strong, motivated young woman. During her final semester at UMD, she interned for the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship – which played well into her concentration on communications and business.

Now that she has graduated, Hannah continues to be community-minded, becoming active in the presidential campaign. “I’m taking a year to get involved,” she said, noting that she is also working on a series of children’s books on food allergies.

Despite her client’s case, Vargas noted there are now many universities in the United States that “get it.” She says they are routinely providing safe food for students like Hannah with celiac disease or food allergies.

Related Reading:
The Good and the Bad of the College Experience with Food Allergies
Williamsburg Ruling: Implications for Food Allergy, Gluten-Free Rights
Student Sues College, Claiming Discrimination Over Dairy Allergy