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  • Jefferson Adams
    Jefferson Adams

    U.S Department of Justice Says Celiac Disease Not a Disability in All Cases

    Reviewed and edited by a celiac disease expert.

    Caption: When is celiac disease a disability under the ADA? Photo: CC--Donkeyhotey

    Celiac.com 01/11/2016 - Is celiac disease a disability under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act? The Department of Justice says not necessarily.

    On the heels of a federal lawsuit that claiming that restaurants are violating federal disability laws by charging more for gluten-free food than for non-gluten-free counter parts, a Department of Justice spokesperson has stated that a 2012 civil rights settlement on behalf of Lesley University students with celiac disease does not make the condition a disability in all cases.

    DOJ public affairs specialist, Patrick Rodenbush, said settlement at Leslie University did not set a legal precedent, because the "…settlement enforces the rights of students whose food allergies were disabilities, [but] it doesn't necessarily make celiac disease a disability in all cases."

    This is relevant to a case in California, where federal judge recently denied a motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit alleging P.F. Chang's violates the Americans with Disabilities Act because it charges more for gluten-free items.

    In the P.F. Chang's case, Judge Ronald Whyte denied P.F. Chang's motion to dismiss because, he wrote, that, although the court had not found specific information proving that celiac disease constituted a disability under the ADA, the "plaintiff has pled sufficient facts to support her claim that she has a disability that impacts a major life activity."

    Whyte noted "on a more complete factual record, the court might reach a different conclusion." He also stated that it may be difficult, or impossible for Phillips to prove her claims.

    "The ultimate question is whether P.F. Chang's, in providing gluten-free meals, is providing different products or whether the price differential with regular meals is a pretext for discrimination against those with celiac disease," Whyte wrote.

    At stake is whether or not food vendors, such as P.F. Chang's can charge higher prices for gluten-free foods than they do for non-gluten-free items.

    The results of this case are being watched closely by celiacs and by restaurant companies, because a ruling that establishes that people with celiac disease are covered under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act could conceivably have a serious impact on how the restaurant industry approaches gluten-free food.

    Stay tuned for new developments.


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    I have celiac disease and still don't trust "gluten free" menus at restaurants. I absolutely expect to pay more for a truly gluten free option. It is an expensive endeavor to serve gluten free at home with separate utensils, toasters, etc. Can you imagine the nightmare for one restaurant?

    This is true - however - if you have ever had the opportunity to look into a restaurant kitchen, you would find that most do nothing about "where" the gluten-free food is prepared. They may use a different product for your meal, but all else remains the same. Cross-contamination, in most cases, is just inevitable.

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    I have mixed feeling about this whole thing. The restaurants are charging more for the product at the get go, because it costs more for. They also have doors widened for wheel chairs, push buttons for easy access, wider isles, larger restrooms, and they build ramps for people to make it possible to get to and fro.


    So why not accommodate celiacs? Is or isn't it a disability? Why are we comparing disabilities? Where do we draw the line? The overall cost of accommodations is distributed all over. Making it possible for everyone to eat out is what this person is trying to change. Having any disability is going to cost more, but who should pay?


    If you are on disability, and require a wheel chair, who pays for that, and how about the big van that holds the wheel chair, and all the meds one needs to take?


    It is hard to be sick; we all know that. it is hard and expensive to live with this disease/disability. They first have to establish whether it is a disability or not.


    I have more questions then answers. I sure would love to be a fly on the wall in this case.


    Thanks for the update Jefferson, I look forward to reading more as it comes to fruition.


    BTW, for the folks doing some name calling, it is just uncalled for. The person filing this lawsuit might be saving your ass. Rosa Parks was called a few names too, but look what she did! I hope this wins, really.


    She and I, and anyone who thinks differently, are not, "morons" or "stupid". This person who filed is brave and courageous. Imagine for a second how hard it had to have been for this young college student. We could stand beside her and support her; it could help everyone with disabilities.


    Change is hard, it is scary, but I am glad she is standing up for what she believes in!

    What most people are missing is that, per the Department of Justice, almost no condition is necessarily a disability. Disability-ness is based on how it affects a person, now what a person's diagnosis is. A disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity, such as eating. Thus, people whose intestines are destroyed by gluten so that they cannot effectively digest food are probably disabled; those who eat gluten-free because they just generally feel better that way are not.

    The major implication that most people seem to be missing is that, if the courts rule that restaurants cannot charge more for gluten-free food because it constitutes discrimination against a person with a disability, it ALSO means that no restaurant can discriminate against people with a disability by refusing to provide food that is safe for them to eat.

    I am honestly surprised the PF Chang's is arguing the disability-ness of celiac disease rather than the "undue hardship" aspect, where businesses do not have to accommodate if it would change the fundamental nature of their business.

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    I have a extreme sensitivity myself, to the point of it being disabling for a few days from crumbs/residue. Restaurants have been a no go for years, aside from this one sushi place where I know the chef. Most of the time I just bring my own foods in mention I have celiac disease and a corn allergy, then order a beverage. Only do this when I am meeting with others or want to feel "Normal" and eat out. Eating out is a option, if you do not like, trust, or find where you are going to be overly expensive, but must eat out. Bring your own food and order whats safe with no price difference like steamed broccoli and a drink.

    I have the same issue as you do. I have reactions to corn also, so gluten-free doesn't mean all safe for me. On that note, I have been places that tried to refuse me when I brought my own food. This I felt was the discrimination. Bowling alley, movie theatre, comedy club, ect. I was willing to pay for entrance, but was forced to go out to my car to eat, if I needed to.

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    If people like this woman continue stupid lawsuits, we will go back to no gluten free items on a menu. I am THRILLED how far restaurants have come. Please don't blow this for us!

    This is not a "stupid" lawsuit. It is clear that restaurants cannot charge more to a person for having a disease that limits him or her in the eating area (that is a disability, folks). If the lawyer that was defending P. F. Chang was better paid than the plaintiff´s lawyer or if there were vested interests behind this lawsuit, that was another issue.

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    Except that, behind kitchen doors, they are not as careful as they would like to portray. Preparers, in many cases, just use the same work surfaces, pans, etc.

    This is really true. I do not eat in restaurants anymore because I got very ill eating in a restaurant that proclaimed they made gluten-free pizza in a different area in the same restaurant.

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    I am very surprised at the people in this forum who do not see the need to defend themselves when there are things that have not been well litigated at the courts. You do have a disability folks, no doubt according to ADA definition. How according to the ADA definition we fall under the category of disability and under the "Justice" Department we do not? Don't you see there is something wrong here? Please, open your eyes.

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    I have celiac and I don't eat in a restaurant unless it's dedicated gluten free. I worked in the food industry for 20 years before being diagnosed. It's an inconvenience and they don't care about being safe unless they are trained properly. They don't understand cross contamination and separate work stations. Your taking a huge risk by eating out at these restaurants. I do consider it a disability, I have several issues with my legs, my anxiety, and depression is out of control. I can't go back to work. I can barely make dinner and take a shower some days. 

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  • About Me

    Jefferson Adams is Celiac.com's senior writer and Digital Content Director. He earned his B.A. and M.F.A. at Arizona State University, and has authored more than 2,000 articles on celiac disease. His coursework includes studies in science, scientific methodology, biology, anatomy, medicine, logic, and advanced research. He previously served as SF Health News Examiner for Examiner.com, and devised health and medical content for Sharecare.com. Jefferson has spoken about celiac disease to the media, including an appearance on the KQED radio show Forum, and is the editor of the book "Cereal Killers" by Scott Adams and Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.

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