gluten-free-diet_edited-1Many restaurants have responded to consumer demand by offering various alternative menu items to satisfy special dietary needs or desires. One of the most popular is gluten free alternatives for those who need or want a gluten free diet. A recent case from California makes it clear that these options are not required by the ADA, and that many dietary restrictions are not disabilities covered by the ADA.

Phillips v. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Inc.,  2015 WL 4694049, at *9 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 6, 2015) concerned a claim by a plaintiff with celiac disease who was unhappy with the fact that P.F. Chang’s charges $1.00 more for various gluten free alternative menu items. She claimed, in a nutshell, that celiac disease is a disability and that the additional $1.00 charge was discriminatory under the ADA. The Court rejected both ideas.

Whether an allergy or food intolerance constitutes a disability under the ADA depends on the particular allergy and its effect, but in general even serious allergies do not constitute disabilities if the consequences can be avoided by observing a restricted diet. The Court did not find any cases dealing with celiac disease, but compared it to nut allergies, which require nothing more than avoidance of nuts. (Citing Slade v. Hershey Co., 2011 WL 3159164 (M.D.Pa. Jul. 26, 2011)).

The Court did recognize a DOJ settlement with Lesley University that is predicated on the idea that celiac disease and other food allergies are disabilities; however, it referred to it for a completely different part of the analysis. Courts addressing allergy issues generally find that even allergies causing severe reactions are not disabilities because they do not substantially limit a major life activity. For example, a latex allergy may make it difficult for an individual to study nursing, but it does not impair the ability of the person to learn generally (Webb-Eaton v. Wayne Cnty. Cmty. Coll. Dist.,  2013 WL 3835208, at *4 (E.D. Mich. July 24, 2013). Restaurants can reasonably conclude that food allergies are not disabilities under the ADA in most circumstances, despite DOJ’s contrary belief.

The Court in Phillips v. P.F. Chang’s also rejected the idea that a $1.00 additional charge was discriminatory. The discrimination inquiry came in two parts. First, was the restaurant required to provide meals that those with allergies could enjoy and second, was the $1.00 charge an illegal surcharge imposed on the disabled.

With respect to the first question the Court did address the DOJ’s settlement with Lesley University, and in particular an Information Sheet concerning the settlement issued by DOJ. DOJ recognized that the students at Lesley University, unlike the patrons of a restaurant, had no alternative to the University’s mandatory meal plan. DOJ agrees that ordinary restaurants are not required to provide any special foods to meet particular dietary needs, which is consistent with the more general principle that a public accommodation does not have to add to the goods and services it offers in order to accommodate the disabled. (See, 28 CFR Part 36, Appendix B at p. 224).

As for the surcharge, a higher price for goods and services is improper only if the price applies only to the disabled. For example, selling plus-sized clothing at a higher price is not discrimination against the obese (who may in some cases be disabled) because the same price applies no matter who buys the clothes. (See,Anderson v. Macy’s, Inc., 943 F. Supp. 2d 531, 537 (W.D. Pa. 2013)).  P.F. Chang’s one dollar surcharge applied to all customers wanting a gluten free dish, and so it was not discriminatory.

One final note. Although the courts do not agree with DOJ concerning whether food allergies are disabilities, that legal issue may not be one worth fighting. DOJ suggests in its information sheet that restaurants are obligated to accommodate those with food allergies by (a) telling customers what ingredients are in a dish, if known, and (b) omitting ingredients on request if this is done for other customers. For restaurants offering dishes that are individually cooked extending this kind of courtesy to those with food allergies will help avoid litigation. In a society where food allergies and food related conditions seem to be on the rise it is probably also good business in general; in fact, restaurants have been ahead of the curve in offering gluten free items to their menus. It is good to know, however, that this is voluntary, and that the ADA does not require special menus or food accommodations to every person with a food allergy or condition.