Supreme Court Sides With Family In Service Dog Case
by Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press/TNS | February 22, 2017
In a unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has largely sided with the family of a girl with cerebral palsy who sought to bring her service dog to school. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca
WASHINGTON — Wonder the goldendoodle will get another shot in court.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled that the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals should reconsider whether Ehlena Fry and her family can sue a Michigan school district for its decision years ago to tell Ehlena, who has cerebral palsy, that she couldn’t bring her service dog to school.
In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, Ehlena’s parents and their lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union argued in October that they shouldn’t be required to exhaust administrative remedies under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act before suing under a separate law involving access to public institutions, as the school district argued.
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The eight-member court largely agreed — not deciding whether the Frys, who live in Manchester, Mich., had fully proved their argument, but sending it back to the lower court with instructions on a two-pronged standard that could help decide such cases in the future.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court, saying that “exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative procedures is unnecessary” in cases where the larger point of a suit is about “something other than the denial” of that statute’s guarantee of a free and appropriate public education for students with disabilities.
The Frys brought the case against the Napoleon Community Schools and the Jackson County Intermediate School District in 2012, saying that when Ehlena was 5 the staff at Ezra Eby Elementary balked at her bringing Wonder to school to help her retrieve dropped items, open and close doors and perform other tasks, saying a human aide could help.
But Ehlena’s pediatrician had prescribed Wonder to be with Ehlena at all times to help them solidify a working bond. Eventually, the Frys moved Ehlena to a new school where Wonder was welcomed. But the school district argued that the Frys could have sorted out the situation in a few months by using the process under IDEA instead of suing for damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In sending the case back to the 6th Circuit, the Supreme Court said while Congress made clear that disputes over appropriate educational requirements needed to work through the IDEA process, that was not the case in claims involving public access under the ADA, such as the Frys’ appeared to be.
The court instructed the 6th Circuit to review the case and determine whether the same claims could be raised “if the conduct had occurred in a public facility which was not a school” and whether an adult with disabilities who was not a student could have “pressed the same grievance.”
The Supreme Court said while it appeared that the “Frys’ complaint alleges only disability-based discrimination, without making any reference to the adequacy of the special education services” she was provided, “the possibility remains that the history of these proceedings might suggest something different” and that it should be left to the lower court to decide.
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