WASHINGTON (CN) – A fluffy, white goldendoodle made its way to the nation’s highest court Monday as its owners fight to revive discrimination claims against the school that refused to let the pooch accompany a student with disabilities.
Wonder the dog 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.
Her owner, Ehlena Fry, has cerebral palsy but no cognitive disabilities.
Community members in Jackson County, Michigan, raised more than $13,000 to help 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.
Wonder, now retired, was not in the courtroom during the proceedings but was on the courthouse steps with a pack of other service dogs after the arguments wrapped up.
The court seemed sympathetic to the Frys but did express some reservations about what their ruling would mean for other, muddier cases.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked what would happen if the Frys had brought the case when Ehlena was still in school, or didn’t specify they were not alleging a deprivation of a their daughter’s right to a free appropriate public education.
Ruling in favor of the Frys, the court noted, could open up schools to two-track litigation where families could hold a civil suit as leverage over a school district with which they are negotiating under the administrative processes of IDEA, short the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“I appreciate the nature of your case, all right?” Sotomayor said. “But your suggestion is likely to raise a lot of hesitation in this court, amongst some, maybe even me. Because if what you’re saying is we’re going to be on a dual track in every case, it’s not going to be very attractive to the court.”
Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, stuck to the letter of the law.
“You’ve got to go through the complicated process that IDEA says,” Katyal said. “It’s a time-sensitive one – it’s only 105 days, start to finish – but you’ve got to go through the whole thing. They walked out on the process before it was over.”
The Frys meanwhile say they should be able to skip the IDEA administrative proceedings, going straight to court to recover monetary damages, because IDEA administrative officers cannot award the compensatory damages they sought in their original suit.
Chief Justice John Roberts questioned why the law should make the Frys sit through a “charade” of an administrative proceeding if they know going in that it cannot give them the relief they would like.
Katyal insisted throughout his time that the Frys never sought emotional damages in their original complaint, and that Congress specifically created the exhaustion-of-administrative-remedies provision because it knew plaintiffs could “gut” the law by creatively structuring their complaints.
Sotomayor was particularly tough on Katyal.
“I am so confused by your position,” Sotomayor told Katyal. “I’m so horribly confused.”
Reading through the three prongs of relief the Frys listed in their original complaint, Sotomayor questioned how anyone could read them as anything but compensatory damages for emotional distress.
“Every one of these are one of the classic damage harms that are compensatory,” Sotomayor said.
On the other end of the bench, Justice Elena Kagan made similar remarks but focused on the declaratory judgment the Frys sought in their complaint.
“You don’t get a declaration that the ADA was violated or the Rehabilitation Act was violated from an IDEA officer,” Kagan said.
The Frys brought their case to Washington after the Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the case. Under the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act, families seeking relief that is also available under the IDEA must go through all of the administrative processes that the IDEA requires.
When Napoleon Schools initially barred the dog, it noted that it had already paid a human aide to help Ehlena during the day.
District officials did let Ehlena bring the dog in for a trial period, but swung back to their original position, saying a handful of students and staff were allergic to the dog, and that another student was afraid of it.
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