Monday, October 2, 2023

Appeals court vacates judgment favoring Colonial Williamsburg in case of gluten-allergic boy

A lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday claims Colonial Williamsburg violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by removing an 11-year-old with a gluten allergy from Shield’s Tavern. (WYDaily/File photo)
A lawsuit filed in federal court claims Colonial Williamsburg violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by removing an 11-year-old with a gluten allergy from Shields Tavern. (WYDaily/File photo)

A federal court of appeals has vacated a lower court’s ruling favoring Colonial Williamsburg, releasing an opinion that the foundation may not have properly accommodated a gluten-allergic 11-year-old when it allegedly refused to allow him to eat a homemade, gluten-free chicken sandwich inside Shields Tavern.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on Friday vacated a prior case judgment by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia favoring Colonial Williamsburg over a Maryland child and his father.

The district court previously awarded a summary judgment to the foundation, indicating it was questionable whether 11-year-old J.D.’s gluten allergy disability qualified under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The appeals court also vacated the $6,874.25 in court costs previously awarded to Colonial Williamsburg as part of the summary judgment.

The case is now remanded to the district court and must move forward with further proceedings.

The issue

According to court records, on May 22, 2017, J.D., his classmates and his father traveled from Maryland to Colonial Williamsburg for a school trip.

One point on the itinerary was Shields Tavern, where the family claimed he was not allowed to eat his specially-prepared meal inside.

The judge’s opinion says J.D.’s father informed the school his son would not be eating at any of the restaurants, but would eat his own food while on the school trip to Colonial Williamsburg.

RELATED STORY: Disabled 11-year-old’s father sues Colonial Williamsburg for discrimination

In the past, the family allowed some restaurants to prepare gluten-free meals for their son, but had several situations where their son later experienced severe symptoms related to ingesting gluten — indicating the meals weren’t prepared as carefully

“To that end, they regularly prepare his food and pack separate tableware to ensure that he can participate in school parties, celebrations, and meals to the greatest extent possible,” court documents read.

The opinion said there are no indications the father’s message about meals was relayed to Shields Tavern in advance of the school group’s meal.

When the school group arrived at Shields Tavern, the father and son sat at a two-person table and told the waitress they would not be ordering food. They then began preparing their own meal — a gluten-free chicken sandwich — with their own utensils, cups and plates.

There were two gluten-free meals ordered by the school at Shields Tavern, although the parties in the case dispute whether those were intended for J.D. and his father, according to court papers.

As the duo was preparing the meal, a waitress spoke to them and said they couldn’t bring in their own food because it was a health code violation.

The Virginia health code does not allow food prepared in a private home to be used or offered for consumption in a food establishment unless the home kitchen has also been inspected and regulated.

A restaurant manager then confirmed the policy, and said they would need to eat outside. A head chef also offered to prepare a gluten-free meal for the child.

“At this point, J.D. and his father were left with three options: hope for the best and accept the restaurant’s offer of a gluten-free meal, stay inside and not eat, or eat the prepared meal outside,” the opinion reads. “As J.D. began to cry, his father packed up the prepared meal and followed a server outside to the picnic tables behind Shields Tavern.”

Before the appeal

After the period of evidence-gathering in the case, Colonial Williamsburg asked for summary judgment in the district court instead of proceeding to trial.

A magistrate judge recommended granting the summary judgment because they found there was a “genuine dispute of material fact” about whether J.D. is disabled under the definition provided by the ADA.

The district court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation on June 1, 2018 — awarding costs to Colonial Williamsburg as the “prevailing party” — because J.D. didn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt he was discriminated against because of his disability.

Following the summary judgment, J.D. and his father appealed the case June 26, 2018, moving it to be considered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Disabled or not?

While the first court denied summary judgment to J.D. because he “can simply avoid foods that contain gluten,” the judge’s May 31 opinion disagrees.

An impairment will qualify under the ADA if it substantially limits a person’s ability to perform a major life activity compared to the general population.

“Eating is a major life activity,” the opinion reads.

While the court’s opinion says the judge believes J.D.’s impairment does significantly impact his eating, it also agrees with the lower court in the sense he has raised a genuine dispute about whether he qualifies under the ADA.

If J.D. simply avoids food with gluten, he can avoid the debilitating symptoms of his allergy.

A homemade meal: Necessary or not?

Another section of the court opinion deals with whether the requested modification — allowing J.D. to eat his homemade meal inside the restaurant — was a necessary action by Colonial Williamsburg if they already could prepare a gluten-free meal for the student.

The appeals court also disagreed with the district court’s ruling that Colonial Williamsburg’s offer to prepare a gluten-free meal was enough accommodation for J.D.’s allergy.

Because of J.D.’s severe reactions to meals that were prepared by restaurants in the past, the appeals court believes eating his own homemade food may have been necessary.

But without a jury determining the “nature and extent” of J.D.’s disability, the appeals court cannot determine whether the accommodation offered by Colonial Williamsburg fully accounted for his disability, according to court documents.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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