Federal Appeals Court Rules That Eating Is a Major Life Activity

A September 2003 decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Oregon determined that eating is a “major life activity,” for the purpose of establishing a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

As part of the ruling, a defendant may have to accommodate legitimate eating requirements of people with diabetes.

Type 1 Told She Couldn’t Eat at Her Desk

The case began in June 1998, when Rebecca Ann Fraser, who suffers from type 1 diabetes, was told by her supervisor at United States Bancorp that she could not eat at her desk. Since she had to regulate her food intake carefully, this prohibition immediately resulted in Fraser having low blood glucose and a fainting spell.

Despite her subsequent requests for relief, the bank terminated her employment in March 1999.

Fraser then sued in federal district court, arguing that she was discriminated against in violation of the ADA. Her case was dismissed because the court believed that her allegation about dietary requirements was not enough for an ADA cause of action..

She next appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Is Eating a Major Lifestyle Activity?

The basic issue was whether the bank failed to make reasonable accommodations to Fraser, as required for disabled persons under the ADA.

In its May 2003 decision, the appeals court first determined that the ADA defines a disability as a physical impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual. There is no question that diabetes is a physical impairment. The issue was whether eating was a “major life activity.” If it was not a major life activity or if her diabetes did not substantially limit her eating, Fraser could not win her case even though having diabetes impacted her eating needs.

Yes, it Is!

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Fraser’s favor, reversing the lower court decision.

In its decision, the appeals court first noted that several other courts across the country had ruled that eating was, in fact, a major life activity because it falls within the types of activities that are of “central importance” to most people. As to whether Fraser’s eating was sufficiently impaired, the appeals court ruled in the affirmative, observing that her dietary demands were very restrictive.

“Unlike a person with ordinary dietary restrictions,” the court stated, “Fraser does not enjoy a forgiving margin for error.”

There were three judges on the Ninth Circuit’s panel. Two ruled in her favor. One judge dissented, holding that the dictionary definition of “eating” is “to take in through the mouth as food: ingest, chew and swallow in turn.” Since Fraser was not affected under this narrow, literal definition, this judge felt the lower court’s dismissal should have been upheld.

To read more about this decision, log onto www.kmtg.com/pdfs/alert751131.pdf

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