On May 31, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Fourth Circuit ruled on a case important to the food allergy community – J.D. v. Williamsburg. J.D.'s family sued Colonial Williamsburg, saying they discriminated against someone with a disability when they didn’t let him eat his safe lunch in their restaurant while on a class trip.
The court issued an opinion in favor of people with gluten sensitivity, celiac disease and food allergies.
The court confirmed that health-related dietary restrictions could be considered a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). They found that if a restaurant refused to allow someone to eat safe food brought in, it could violate the ADA.
But the case is not over. The May 31 opinion does not mean that all restaurants must now allow outside food. Whether the ADA requires this kind of accommodation from a restaurant will depend on the facts of an individual’s case.
Here is some more information to better explain this case and what it means to people with food allergies and special diets.
What’s the Status of J.D.’s Case?
In the first stage of this lawsuit, the federal district court agreed with Colonial Williamsburg. But J.D.‘s family asked the appeals court – a higher level federal court – to look at the case again. On May 31, the appeals court disagreed with the lower court.
The appeals court found that because J.D. had reactions to restaurant food that was supposed to be safe before, a jury might agree that he has to bring his own food. The appeals court reversed the lower court’s decision. This means the case is sent back to let J.D. try to prove his ADA claim.
What Happens Next?
J.D.’s lawyer can now try to persuade a jury that what happened to him was discrimination under the ADA. He will have to prove that his gluten sensitivity greatly limits eating. He must also prove the restaurant should have allowed him to eat his safe food inside with his class.
What Does the May 31 Opinion Mean for Other People With Celiac, Gluten Sensitivity and Food Allergies?
The appeals court’s decision backed up some important protections.
First, it confirmed that severe dietary problems count as disabilities. Earlier cases have already decided this. But other people who face similar situations still must prove on a case-by-case basis that their condition severely limits eating.
Second, the appeals court found that the restaurant may have violated the ADA. Again, this must be proven by other people on a case-by-case basis.
Does the Appeals Court’s Opinion Apply Nationwide?
No. The opinion was from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. It only covers Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. But other circuit courts often consider each other’s rulings for similar cases.
What Does This Mean for Me or My Child?
This case does not decide that all restaurants must allow outside food for people with food allergies and other dietary needs. But it does make it easier for other people with food allergies and dietary needs to prove an ADA claim if a restaurant won’t let them bring in outside food.
When you eat out, work with the restaurant to try to stay safe. For example:
- Look up the menu online before you go
- Call ahead and talk to the manager
- Take allergy cards
- Make reservations for slow or early seating times
- Be friendly but assertive
What About Taking Food Into Other Places, Like Amusement Parks and Movie Theaters?
Twelve types of places are considered public and have to abide by the ADA. But this doesn’t mean they have to allow outside food.
For example, a store that doesn’t let anyone eat food on site probably won’t have to allow you to eat your own food there. But you might be able to bring safe popcorn to a movie theater that uses an oil that is not safe for your child.
Before you visit a place that serves food, call ahead. Speak to a manager and ask what their policies are. Also consider asking your child’s doctor for a note about your child’s food allergies. These steps may make your visit more successful if you have to bring outside food.