WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with a Michigan girl with cerebral palsy who wants to sue school officials over their refusal to let her bring a service dog to class.
The justices ruled unanimously that federal disability laws might allow Ehlena Fry to pursue her case in court without first having to wade through a lengthy administrative process.
— ACLU of Michigan (@ACLUofMichigan) February 22, 2017
The ruling from Justice Elena Kagan said exhausting the administrative process is not always required. But she said further fact-finding is needed to decide whether Fry can pursue her case in court. The ruling could make it easier for disabled students to protect their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Lower courts had ruled against Fry, saying she first had to try informally resolving her dispute with the school district.
Fry’s family sought to use the service dog when Ehlena started kindergarten and suffered from severe mobility problems. Wonder was specially trained to help open doors, pick up items and give Ehlena a measure of independence.
But her school district 75 miles southwest of Detroit initially said Wonder could not accompany her and insisted adult aides could help Ehlena.
School officials later relented a bit, but placed so many restrictions on the dog that Ehlena’s parents decided to home-school her. She later transferred to a different public school that welcomed Wonder.
At issue is the interplay of two federal disability laws. The school district said it could bar the dog under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which allows a teacher’s aide to assist students instead. That law requires families that contest school decisions to first go through administrative proceedings.
But the family said it could sue for damages under a different law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, because the district refused to accommodate Wonder over a two-and-a-half year period.