Supreme Court Backs Family in Case on Denial of Service Dog in School

By Mark Walsh — February 22, 2017 4 min read
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[UPDATED 4 p.m. Wednesday.]

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday gave a unanimous, but for now partial, victory to the family that sued a Michigan school district under federal disabilities laws after the district barred a service dog for a child with cerebral palsy.

In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (Case No. 15-497), the high court held that a student or family suing a school district over a disability-related issue does not always have to go through, or “exhaust,” all the procedures under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act before going to court.

The court held that IDEA procedures need not be exhausted when the essence, or “gravamen,” of a lawsuit centers on a violation of other federal disabilities law rather than the special education law’s core guarantee of a “free, appropriate special education.”

“If, in a suit brought under a different statute, the remedy sought is not for the denial of a FAPE, then exhaustion of the IDEA’s procedures is not required,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in an opinion for the court.

She said that in the case involving Ehlena Fry, a Michigan student who was denied the use of her service dog by her former school district, the Napoleon Community Schools, a federal appeals court did not undertake the proper analysis to determine whether the family’s suit was mainly about special education or essentially about vindicating the child’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Kagan suggested that it was more likely the latter since Fry was seeking to use her service dog for better accessibility at school.

“The Frys’ complaint alleges only disability-based discrimination, without making any reference to the adequacy of the special education services E.F.'s school provided,” Kagan wrote. “And nothing in the nature of the Frys’ suit suggests any implicit focus on the adequacy of E.F.'s education.”

But, she added, “we do not foreclose the possibility that the history of these proceedings might suggest something different.”

“On remand,” Kagan added, “the court below should establish whether (or to what extent) the Frys invoked the IDEA’s dispute resolution process before bringing this suit. And if the Frys started down that road, the court should decide whether their actions reveal that the gravamen of their complaint is indeed the denial of a FAPE, thus necessitating further exhaustion.”

Kagan’s opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Alito said he objected to some of the “clues” that Kagan’s opinion provided to the lower courts that might handle similar cases.

Kagan stressed that the IDEA guarantees individually tailored educational services, while the ADA and Rehabilitation Act “promise non-discriminatory access to public institutions.”

Kagan said “one clue” to whether a suit against a school essentially concerns denial of a free, appropriate public education or disability-based discrimination can come by asking whether the plaintiff could bring the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at, say, a public library instead of a school.

And, she said, one could ask whether an adult at a school, such as an employee or a visitor, could bring the same grievance.

“When the answer to those questions is yes, a complaint that does not expressly allege the denial of a FAPE is also unlikely to be truly about that subject,” Kagan said. “After all, in those other situations there is no FAPE obligation and yet the same basic suit could go forward.”

“But when the answer is no,” Kagan continued, “then the complaint probably does concern a FAPE, even if it does not explicitly say so; for the FAPE requirement is all that explains why only a child in the school setting (not an adult in that setting or a child in some other) has a viable claim.”

Justice Alito declines the join that portion of Kagan’s opinion discussing those questions, saying in his concurrence that Kagan’s clues “are likely to confuse and lead courts astray.”

Stacy Fry, Ehlena’s mother, said in an interview that she was elated by the decision, especially the 8-0 judgment of the court.

“For us, it’s just that no child should have their life put on hold because they choose to be as independent as possible by using a medically prescribed service dog,” she said. “This is huge for families going through discrimination. If they’re not arguing their education, they can avoid the legal dragout of that.”

Ehlena Fry is now in 6th grade in the nearby Manchester, Mich., school district. She no longer relies on her service dog, a goldendoodle named Wonder, at school. But her family is seeking damages in their disability-discrimination suit, a remedy they could still receive after another round or two of court proceedings.

Michael J. Steinberg, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which represented the Fry family, called the decision “pretty close to total victory.”

“We feel very good about winning on remand” when the case returns to the lower courts, he said. “We never challenged the adequacy of [Ehlena’s] education. She was receiving a fine education. They had an aide that provided allt he help she needed for her education. What she wanted a service dog for was to help her become a more independent person.”

“The beauty of the opinion is that it paves the way for tens of thousands of students who come after Ehlena and will not have to waste their time jumping through futile administrative hoops.”

The lawyer for the Napoleon district did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.