Tree Nut Allergy May be Disability Under State Law

January 31, 2013 | Erika Eckley

This lawsuit arose out of a child’s allergy to tree nuts and involved the issue of whether such an allergy is a disability under Iowa’s Civil Rights Act. The problem arose when the plaintiff tried to enroll her daughter in a child care center. The plaintiff’s daughter had a severe tree nut allergy and the mother detailed an emergency care plan with the center’s management. Because of concern regarding the allergy and potential for harm to the child, the child care center declined to enroll the plaintiff’s daughter because it could not meet the girl’s needs due to staffing and liability issues.

The plaintiff sued the child care center and its managers alleging the refusal to admit her daughter was disability discrimination in violation of Iowa’s Civil Rights Act. The district court granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion.  In granting the summary judgment motion, the district court had relied on a federal case that involved similar facts analyzed under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which Iowa law mimics. In the federal case, the court held that no discrimination occurred when a nut allergy was involved. The plaintiff didn’t believe that the federal case controlled because the ADA had been amended to expand the scope of a disability under the statute since the opinion was issued. Because the Iowa law had not been similarly amended and mirrored the statute analyzed in the federal case, the district court rejected the plaintiff’s argument. The court concluded that the plaintiff’s physical condition did not constitute a disability under Iowa’s statute and granted summary judgment without further analysis.

On review, the appellate court found significant that Iowa cases have held that the federal law provides the framework for an analysis of a “disability” under Iowa’s statute. The court focused on the federal amended definition of a disability that provided that an ‘impairment” that is episodic is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active. All parties agreed that the plaintiff’s daughter’s tree nut allergy was episodic. Relying solely on the amended federal definition, which is broader than Iowa’s statute, the court reversed the granting of summary judgment. Because the district court failed to consider whether the allergy would substantially limit a major life activity when active, the case was remanded for consideration of this component of a disability.

A dissent was filed. The dissent pointed out that the reliance on the federal statute in interpreting Iowa’s statute was based on the similarity in the statutes. Because the Iowa statute has not been amended and no longer mirrored the federal’s expansion of the definition of a disability, the dissent stated that court should not have relied on the amended federal statute in deciding this case and should leave the matter to the legislature to decide whether Iowa’s statute should be expanded to match the federal ADA.  Knudsen v. Tiger Tots Community Child Care Center, Corp., No. 2-1011, 2013 Iowa App. LEXIS 6 (Iowa Ct. App. Jan. 9, 2013).