The Fourth Circuit Weighs in on the Gluten-Free Diet Under the Americans with Disabilities Act

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) provides that “[n]o individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.”  For a plaintiff to succeed in claiming a violation of the ADA, he must prove that: (1) he is disabled under the ADA; (2) the defendant owns or operates a place of public accommodation; and (3) the defendant discriminated against him because of the disability.  If a court determines that a plaintiff’s proof of an ADA violation is not sufficient to reach a jury, it will grant summary judgment and dismiss a claim in favor of the defendant.   

Last week, the Fourth Circuit issued a published decision on such an ADA claim, vacating a district court’s grant of summary judgment to a restaurant which had refused to allow a child to eat his own, homemade gluten-free meal inside the restaurant.  See J.D., by his father and next friend, Brian Doherty v. Colonial Williamsburg Found., No. 18-1725 (4th Cir. May 31, 2019).  The child suffered from a medical condition, causing him to experience severe physical symptoms whenever he ingested even a trace amount of gluten.  As a result, he was on a strict gluten-free diet.  As part of a class field trip, the child had gone to a restaurant in Colonial Williamsburg and had attempted to bring inside and eat his own home-prepared, gluten-free meal.  The restaurant had a general no-outside-food policy.  Rather than let the child eat his meal, the restaurant offered to prepare a gluten-free meal for him.  The child refused this offer because he had suffered severe reactions in the past at other restaurants after accepting such offers, leading him to believe gluten would be in the food.  When the child refused to accept the restaurant’s offer, the restaurant excluded him.  That is, the child was compelled to eat his meal outside and away from the rest of his classmates.

The child, by his father, subsequently filed a lawsuit against Colonial Williamsburg and the restaurant, claiming they had discriminated against him in violation of the ADA.  He claimed they had discriminated against him by excluding him from the restaurant and by failing to modify the no-outside-food policy to accommodate him.  No dispute existed that Colonial Williamsburg owned and operated the restaurant, which was a place of public accommodation, and, thus, the child could prove the second requirement of his claim.  The lawsuit came down to the first and third requirements, namely whether the child was disabled under the ADA and whether the restaurant had discriminated against him because of the disability.

In deciding the lawsuit, the district court denied summary judgment for the restaurant on the first requirement, finding that the child presented sufficient evidence for a jury to decide whether he was disabled.  Indeed, the child’s evidence supported a finding that his severe gluten-intolerance substantially limited his major life activity of eating, meeting the ADA’s definition of a disability.  The district court, however, granted summary judgment to the restaurant and dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the child’s request to eat his own meal inside the restaurant was not a necessary modification of the restaurant’s no-outside-food policy.  In other words, the child could not prove the third requirement of his ADA claim -discrimination. 

In vacating this decision, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court had erroneously granted summary judgment to the restaurant on the discrimination question.  The Fourth Circuit observed that, under the ADA, discrimination is defined, in part, as “a failure to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities, unless the entity can demonstrate that making such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of such goods, services, [etc.].”  In contrast to the district court, the Fourth Circuit opined that the child, in light of his particular gluten-intolerance disorder, presented sufficient evidence to allow a jury to decide whether eating his homemade gluten-free meal inside the restaurant was a necessary modification to the restaurant’s no-outside-food policy, such that the child could have the full and equal enjoyment of the restaurant.  The Fourth Circuit also opined that jury questions existed as to whether the modification was reasonable and presented no fundamental alteration of the restaurant’s services.  Having so ruled, the Fourth Circuit sent the lawsuit back to the district court for further proceedings.

The extent to which the opinion above will alter in the future the services a restaurant in Virginia provides to its gluten-free customers remains to be seen.  Certain fundamental takeaways, however, exist as a result of the opinion.  First, a court will apply a broad construction of the term disability under the ADA and, in so doing, will examine a person’s particular condition and its unique attributes.    Second, a place of public accommodation, such as a restaurant, should be prepared and would be wise to be as flexible as possible when encountering a person with a potential condition necessitating more individualized attention.  Exclusion is the prohibition.  The goal of the ADA is to ensure the full and equal enjoyment of a place of public accommodation for all persons, including in a restaurant’s dining experience.

To learn more about Title III of the ADA, please visit the United States Department of Justice’s website at https://www.ada.gov/ada_title_III.htm.

If you feel you have been excluded from a public accommodation or service due to your disability, then you may have an ADA claim.  Please feel free to contact us for a consultation and evaluation of your particular situation. 

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