(Photo credit SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Jens Manuel Krogstad, The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa residents who suffer from occasional medical attacks such as those those from severe allergies and epilepsy are protected from discrimination by the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.
The case involved Shannon Knudsen, 30, a mother who in May 2011 sued Tiger Tots Community Child Care Center in Madrid, Iowa, after the facility declined to accept her child because of the child's tree nut allergy.
A district court had ruled that the Iowa Civil Rights Act does not protect the child. The appeals court, however, said the lower court erred in not considering a 2008 amendment to the Americans With Disabilities Act that may protect the child from discrimination.
Knudsen's attorney, Eric Updegraff of Des Moines, views the decision as a victory for anyone with epilepsy, severe allergies or other serious medical conditions that periodically flare up.
More U.S. children have developed food allergies over the years. The percentage of children with peanut or tree nut allergies more than tripled to 2.1 percent between 1997 and 2008, according to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Scientists can't explain the increase, though one theory suggests modern, clean living environments leave immune systems vulnerable to harmless proteins, the study said.
"Disabilities like severe allergies or epilepsy carry with them a stigma for people who are running day cares or employing people," Updegraff said.
"It's fair to say employers and day cares will allow their concerns about somebody's condition to prevent them from treating that person fairly, and giving them the same access to accommodations that everyone else is entitled to."
Knudsen, through her attorney, declined to comment because the case is still pending.
An attorney for Tiger Tots, John Jordan, said the center was disappointed by the decision. He argued the appeals court re-wrote state law instead of interpreting it.
Tiger Tots objected to Knudsen's requirement that her child, in case of an allergic reaction, be transported by staff just outside of city limits to meet an emergency medical helicopter for evacuation, Jordan said.
The appeals court did not delve into the details of the mother's request in deciding the overarching issue - that the federal definition of a disability applies in Iowa.
The Americans With Disabilities Act defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that "substantially limits one or more major life activities." That definition was expanded in 2008 to include any condition that is "episodic or in remission ... if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active."
The appeals court said the lower court must now decide if the child's allergies limit major life activity.
Conflicts between parents and child care centers over nut allergies have not reached the Iowa Department of Human Resources, which enforces child care center regulations, said DHS spokesman Roger Munns.
DHS policy requires child care centers in Iowa comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Centers must make "reasonable" modifications to policies and procedures, unless doing so "would constitute a fundamental alteration" to the center. Additional services are required for children unless it is an undue burden, the policy states.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Gayle Vogel said the child's allergy is not protected by the Iowa Civil Rights Act because the Iowa Legislature has not updated the state's disability rules to mirror federal protections. She argued it is up to state lawmakers to decide whether to expand disability protections to match those in the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The Tiger Tots board of directors will make a decision sometime next week on whether to appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, Jordan said.