OCTOBER 17, 2013
In one of the more outrageous moves by the Justice Department’s bloated civil rights division, a private college was strong armed into a legal settlement in which it agreed that food allergies are a disability under federal law.
The story got little coverage as the Department of Justice (DOJ) quietly persuaded the Massachusetts College, Lesley University, to change its campus menu and serve certain foods to accommodate students with allergies. The preposterous case was brought to Judicial Watch’s attention by Robert Popper, who at the time was a Deputy Chief at the DOJ’s Voting Section. Popper, an esteemed attorney, currently helps lead JW’s Election Integrity Project.
The allergy drama was brought to the DOJ by students who complained that Lesley University didn’t provide enough gluten-free food alternatives and therefore the college failed to accommodate the needs of those with gluten-free diets. The worker bees in the DOJ’s civil rights division, always quick to play the discrimination card, found that the students could not “fully and equally enjoy the privileges, advantages and accommodations of its food service and meal plan system.” This includes the benefits of eating with other students and faculty on campus.
So the feds got to work, pressuring the small college that specializes in education, writing and fine arts programs into changing its menu. How? By accusing the school of violating Title III of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). “Food allergies may constitute a disability under the ADA,” according to the settlement between the college and the feds. “Individuals with food allergies may have an autoimmune response to certain foods, the symptoms of which may include difficulty swallowing and breathing, asthma and anaphylaxis.”
Sounds pretty dramatic, but the food industry is now fearful of the widespread consequences of this decree. In fact, it leaves all facilities that serve food—schools and restaurants—exposed to legal challenges if they don’t accommodate people with food allergies. Thomas Perez, the Obama appointee who headed the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division at the time, confirmed this in a statement after the settlement. “The agreement ensures that Lesley’s meal program is attentive to the schedules and demands of college students with food allergies, an issue colleges and universities across the country need to consider.”
Reading between the lines this means the federal government will make sure colleges and universities across the country cater to students with food allergies. A food research group wrote on its online publication that the “quiet DOJ ruling may have a big impact on the restaurant industry” as well. A national law firm that specializes in healthcare and employment litigation confirms it will have “far-reaching implications for virtually every facility serving food.” The law firm also points out that “accommodation of each type of allergy to the extent set forth in this consent decree may be extraordinarily difficult to achieve in a community dining environment.”
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