Department of Justice Settlement Reignites Call for Gluten-Free School Meals

In a surprising end to 2012, the U. S. Department of Justice announcedsettlement agreement with Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, to ensure that current and prospective students with celiac disease and food allergies have full and equal access to the university’s meal plan and food services. The agreement came three years after a student filed a complaint alleging the university was not compliance with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

According to Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, “this agreement with Lesley University will ensure students with celiac disease and other food allergies can obtain safe and nutritional food options.”

Critical provisions of the agreement include:

-       The Food Service Provider will prepare all meals made without specific allergens, including pre-ordered meals, in a designated area within the University’s cooking and food preparation areas in order to avoid cross contamination;

-       Mandatory educational training for all food service managers and staff including instruction on celiac disease and food allergies, food products that contain allergens, cross-contamination, as well as proper food storage and preparation; and

-       Requirements for food service managers to conduct monthly staff meetings that address allergy awareness and food safety practices.

The agreement makes clear that Lesley University acceptance of the settlement does not constitute an admission or acknowledgement of violations under the ADA, its accompanying regulations, or any other federal or state law.  Additionally, it must be noted that the requirements outlined in the settlement are only binding on the parties involved in this case.

The ACDA applauds the Department of Justice for investigating the student’s complaint and for reaching a workable solution for students with celiac disease that will enable them to fully participate in college life. We strongly recommend that all colleges and universities review the provisions of this agreement and undertake an assessment of:

-       Requests made for dietary accommodations by students with celiac disease and food allergies;

-       Its food service program and the steps necessary to provide safe, nutritional, meal options;

-       Training and education provided to food service and other staff, and whether those modules include appropriate information regarding celiac disease and food allergies, and the dietary needs of such individuals.

Questions and Answers About the DOJ – Lesley Agreement

Was Lesley University found in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for not making gluten-free foods available to students with celiac disease?

A complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging that Lesley University had not provided student(s) with celiac disease reasonable accommodations to its food service and meal plans.  After investigating the complaint, the Department of Justice found that the University’s practices and procedures were not in compliance with the ADA. The University reached a voluntary settlement agreement with the Department of Justice.  The agreement does not constitute an admission or acknowledgement of violations under the ADA, its accompanying regulations, or any other federal or state law.

Was the University fined by Department of Justice for failing to accommodate its student(s) with celiac disease?

Under the settlement, the student(s) who brought the complaint against the university received compensatory damages in the amount of $50,000.

Does this agreement mean that celiac disease is automatically covered by the ADA?

Whether a particular condition constitutes a disability within the meaning of the ADA requires a case-by-case determination. The language from the settlement noting that food allergies may constitute a disability under the ADA, 42 U.S.C. § 12102 and further outlining the major life activities and bodily functions that may be impaired when a person has food allergies or celiac disease, may be helpful in resolving ADA cases.

Are all private schools, like Lesley University required to comply with the ADA?

Private schools controlled by religious organizations are exempt from the public accommodation requirements (Title III) of the ADA.  Lesley University is not affiliated with a religious organization.

Do you anticipate this settlement will improve access to gluten-free meals for students at the elementary and high school level since these entities must also comply with the ADA?

With this settlement the Department of Justice has made clear that food allergies or celiac disease qualify as a disability under the ADA.  As a result, students with celiac disease may use this information in support of a request for gluten free meals, an accommodation which is reasonable under the ADA.

What should schools do as a result of this settlement?

We strongly encourage schools to review their policies and procedures for accommodating students with medically prescribed diets. Specifically, schools are advised to ensure food service managers and staff are provided training about: celiac disease and food allergies, cross-contamination, food storage and preparation.

It is important to remember that under the ADA schools need only make ‘reasonable accommodations’ and these are likely to vary among schools and school districts.

Why doesn’t the settlement agreement include gluten sensitivity?

The student(s) who brought the complaint under the ADA had celiac disease and the agreement is based solely on the facts of that case.

Does a student with celiac disease have to provide documentation of his / her condition in order to receive accommodations (for gluten-free meals) under the ADA?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a written statement signed by a licensed physician indicating what the child’s disability is, what foods must be omitted from the child’s diet, and what foods must be substituted must be on file with the school, in order for it to be reimbursed for the meal.