School District Loses High Court Battle on Service Dog

Wonder the Goldendoodle waits outside the Supreme Court on Oct. 31, 2016, as his owners battle against the Michigan school district that barred him from accompanying student Ehlena Fry as a service dog. (Photo by Tim Ryan, CNS)

(CN) – The Supreme Court revived discrimination claims Wednesday against a Michigan school that refused to let child with cerebral palsy attend with her service dog Wonder.

Ehlena Fry’s goldendoodle is trained to open handicap doors, pick up objects and help her owner move from a walker to the toilet — everyday activities difficult for someone with limited motor skills.

Community members in Jackson County, Michigan, raised more than $13,000 to help parents Stacy and Brent Fry buy the service animal, but Napoleon Community Schools refused in fall 2009 to let Ehlena, then 5, bring Wonder on campus.

The Frys homeschooled Ehlena for two years before they found a school that welcomed Wonder. Now the family is seeking damages for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

Though the Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal of their case, the Supreme Court was unanimous Wednesday in vacating that opinion.

Abbreviating the student’s name, the ruling hinges on whether the school fulfilled its obligations to provide Ehlena with a free appropriate public education, or FAPE, which states are funded to provide under IDEA, short for the Individuals with Disabilities in Education.

Justice Elena Kagan said the Court of Appeals failed to undertake the required analysis by focusing on whether her “injuries were, broadly speaking, ‘educational’ in nature (reasoning that the ‘value of allowing Wonder to attend [school] with [Ehlena] was educational’ because it would foster ‘her sense of independence and social confidence,’ which is ‘the sort of interest the IDEA protects.’”

“That is not the same as asking whether the gravamen of [Ehlena’s] complaint charges, and seeks relief for, the denial of a FAPE,” Kagan added. “And that difference in standard may have led to a difference in result in this case.”

Because the court was not briefed on that issue, Kagan said they had to remand the case for further proceedings.

“Accordingly, on remand, the court below should establish whether (or to what extent) the Frys invoked the IDEA’s dispute resolution process before bringing this suit,” the 20-page opinion states. “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.”

Chief Justice John Roberts joined Kagan’s opinion, as did Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Alito took issue with Kagan’s mention of “clues” for the lower courts.

“Although the court provides these clues for the purpose of assisting the lower courts, I am afraid that they may have the opposite effect,” he said. “They are likely to confuse and lead courts astray.”