Is Gluten Intolerance a Disability? This Lawsuit Against P.F. Chang's Is Banking on It

A class-action suit has been filed against the Chinese-inspired restaurant claiming discrimination against gluten-free diners.

(Photo: Flickr)

Feb 3, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

“No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation.”

That’s a direct quote from Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It’s also the passage referenced by diner Anne Marie Phillips, who filed a discrimination lawsuit against P.F. Chang’s for charging $1 extra per gluten-free menu item. The class-action lawsuit claims that a gluten-free diet is a legally protected medical necessity, and the restaurant is thereby forcing diners with celiac disease or gluten intolerance to order at a higher price.

Phillips’ attorneys claim that more than 3,000 people across 39 states may have been illegally discriminated against by the Scottsdale, Arizona–based chain, and they are seeking an injunction to stop the surcharge immediately. According to Legal Newsline, “The plaintiff seeks restitution for the surcharges paid for gluten-free items; civil penalties; compensatory damages; and punitive damages” as well. Attempts to reach Phillips’ attorneys were not successful.

P.F. Chang’s has an 18-item menu devoted to gluten-free offerings, each of which is served on a plate with a gluten-free insignia on it—just in case you get your non-gluten lettuce wraps confused with your gluten-loving dining companion’s. It was even voted the second-most-allergy-friendly restaurant in America by Allergy Eats, the self-proclaimed “leading guide to allergy-friendly restaurants.”

By all accounts, P.F. Chang’s looked like the good guys. The chefs slaved to revamp their recipes to exclude gluten, and all they asked for was one extra dollar in return—it seems completely reasonable. Sit-down restaurants like P.F. Chang's typically need to sell their items for three times the total cost of ingredients to turn a profit. So if the chefs needed to substitute an extra 33 cents' worth of gluten-free ingredients—whether it be tamari instead of soy sauce or corn starch instead of wheat flour—then the dollar surcharge makes sense economically and likely wasn't used as a tool for diet-based extortion.

However, the lawsuit states that multiple items that cost $1 more on the gluten-free menu, including Chang's Lettuce Wraps, have the same ingredients as the item listed on the regular menu. Unless the gluten-free insignia on the plate accounts for the extra charge, in many cases the restaurant seems to be arbitrarily overcharging gluten-sensitive diners.

A P.F. Chang’s spokeswoman told Nation’s Restaurant News on Monday, “The company does not comment on pending litigation.”