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Diabetes, Microwaves, and 504

I previously blogged about food allergies and special dietary needs in school. In that post, I discussed that when a student has special dietary needs, she may qualify for a 504 plan. A number of extremely helpful documents are linked in that blog post.

In a recent case in New York, a pro se parent (“Parent”) argued that her child’s school district is legally obligated to reheat her diabetic child’s homemade lunch meal. Parent sued under 504, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (“IDEA”), and other “statutes” and “regulations” that purportedly form a basis upon which to seek relief (see p. 2 and footnote 1, 2). Parent seemed to try to test the limits of a school district’s obligations under 504 and ADA. Ultimately, the court determined that the school district’s refusal to reheat homemade lunches did not violate 504 or the ADA.

The facts of the case are somewhat confusing. For reasons of brevity, let’s review the pertinent,
undisputed facts of the case and focus on why the court held that the school’s failure to reheat J.M.’s homemade lunches did not violate 504 or ADA.

In 2007, J.M. was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus when he was 11 years old. On the advice of J.M.’s nutritionist, Parent made homemade lunches for J.M. to take to school. “This was to enable the parent and J.M.’s doctors to monitor his diet–specifically his caloric/carbohydrate intake–at least until J.M. became more accustomed to his ‘new situation.’” (see p. 6). Apparently, there were menu choices available to students with diabetes (see p. 6-7), but J.M. did not like the lunches provided at the school (see p. 31).

When Parent asked whether J.M. could heat his homemade lunch in a microwave, a school staff member agreed to warm up J.M.’s food using the microwave in the teacher’s lounge (see p. 7). For reasons that aren’t clear, however, J.M.’s food was not microwaved on a regular basis; as a result, J.M. did not always eat his lunches. It is not clear whether J.M. was afraid or too self-conscious to ask a staff member to microwave his lunches. It is not even clear if J.M. did not always eat his lunches solely because it was not heated up.

In any event, Parent became concerned about J.M.’s health and access to a microwave. Parent expressed concerns to a number of people, including school personnel and J.M.’s pediatrician, regarding J.M.’s glucose levels and not eating his lunches.

J.M.’s pediatrician signed a Glucose form and a request for a 504 accommodation, which contained very general statements and the importance that staff supervise J.M. to ensure that he “ingests adequate amount[s] of food to prevent hypoglycemia.” Significantly, when J.M.’s pediatrician signed a request form for 504 accommodations, it did not contain an “order or [a] request to heat J.M.’s lunch” (see p.9).

The school superintendent was concerned about “potential liability” associated with microwaving
the lunch meals (see p.10). The superintendent discussed alternative options with the parent, such as “training [the] student to make appropriate menu choices” (see p. 10). When Parent insisted that the school reheat J.M.’s homemade lunches, school personnel repeatedly denied the request (see p. 10).

Parent subsequently filed a petition for a due process hearing, ultimately seeking that the school provide J.M. a microwave so that he can heat up his homemade lunches (see p. 12). The hearing officer appeared sympathetic to the parent, but found against the parent (see p.13). Parent appealed to the State Review Officer and the matter was dismissed for lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction to review Section 504 claims (see p. 14). Parent then filed a complaint in federal court seeking injunctive relief and damages.

The federal court determined that “Although diabetics must monitor their food intake, there is no medical necessity for them to consume hot food” (see p. 7). The court also determined that since J.M. was diagnosed with diabetes 5 years prior to the federal litigation, and since Parent argued that reheating homemade lunches would only be needed “until such time that [J.M.] was able to adjust to the dietary demands of his newly diagnosed condition,” the request for an injunctive relief was moot (see p. 22).

Parent also argued that the school’s failure to accommodate J.M. to reheat his homemade food and supervise J.M. food intake was discrimination under 504 and ADA. The court disagreed (see p. 27-30). In fact, the court held that the “request to heat up J.M.’s homemade food represents the archetype of a preferential, as opposed to a necessary, accommodation” (see p.30). As for supervising J.M.’s food intake, this, too “represents a preferential, as opposed to a necessary, accommodation” (see p. 32).

The court was unable to evidence of any discrimination (see p. 35). Since school staff had been monitoring J.M.’s glucose levels during lunch for years by this point (see p. 33-35), and since there was no evidence or proof that reheating lunches were medically necessary, summary judgment to the defendants was appropriate.

This case is rather remarkable because it seems to me that if the school had simply provided a microwave in the cafeteria so that students could heat up their own homemade lunches, the school district Microwave oven on the table(and the taxpayers) could have saved an enormous amount of money. Alternatively, Parent could have purchased the microwave and donated it to the school cafeteria. Microwaves can be purchased for less than $100 these days. This litigation probably cost the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. Was it worth it? On the other hand, the school district and its attorneys may have been concerned with slippery slope — today, a microwave; tomorrow, a blender. That’s certainly what they might have been thinking. And there are certainly dangers associated with the use of kitchen appliances, especially among young children.

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