DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A child's tree nut allergy is a protected disability, an Iowa appeals court ruled Wednesday in a decision that could set up a legal challenge over whether a day care discriminated against the child when it refused to accept her.
In a 2-1 ruling, the Court of Appeals said the allergy is a protected disability under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, as well as an episodic impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The appeals court did not rule on whether or not the day care actually discriminated against the child — an issue that would be decided by the district court that originally heard the case.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Shannon Knudson, who wanted to enroll her young daughter at Tiger Tots Community Child Care Center in Madrid for preschool and day care services. The day care told Knudson that staff would not be able to meet the girl's special needs because she had a sensitive allergy.
Knudson sued the center and two of its directors, Deborah Wibe and Keith Kudej, saying the refusal amounted to disability discrimination under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. The Polk County District Court, which originally heard the case, determined that Knudson's daughter did not have a disability, and Knudson then appealed.
The day care could appeal Wednesday's ruling to the state Supreme Court, or the case could go back to the district court to rule on whether the center's action amounted to discrimination.
Attorneys for the day care did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday. Wibe, who answered the phone at the day care, declined to comment.
Knudson's attorney, Eric UpDegraff, said he was pleased with the court's decision. He noted that an allergy must cause a severe reaction for it to be considered a disability and that not every episodic allergy would qualify.
"This is part of what we were seeking in this case: to make sure that Iowa protects people who have allergies, episodic disabilities that people don't necessarily understand. ... They act out of that fear and discriminate against people when it's not necessary," he said.
The Polk County District Court had made its ruling based on a federal case involving a mother who sued an Arkansas day care when her child had an allergic reaction to peanuts. An appellate court in that case ruled in favor of the day care.
In the Iowa case, the appeals court said the state's Supreme Court has addressed several times the proper role of federal law in evaluating the definition of disability under the Iowa Civil Rights Act. But Judge Gayle Nelson Vogel, the dissenting vote on the appeals court, said Iowa law has not expanded its definition of disability to mirror federal law, which Congress amended in 2008.
UpDegraff said the case has implications for people with conditions such as epilepsy or allergies with severe reactions.
"This case extends to every person who has a condition like that and fears for their job, or fears that they can't go to school, or that they can't get into a day care," he said. "I absolutely think it has an effect on everything in the state of Iowa."