Supreme Court Win for a Girl and Her Service Dog Clarifies Families’ Right to Sue in Federal Court for Discrimination

The ACLU of Michigan published this 3-minute video about this case entitled, “Ehlena and her Wonder: The Americans with Disabilities Act.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the family of a child with cerebral palsy in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools. This is an important win for students with disabilities that greatly clarifies in what situations a child can bypass the slow-moving process of impartial hearings and state appeals required by the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). In its essence, the Court ruled that if a child with a disability alleges discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and their claim isn't related to denial of a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"), then that student has the right to immediately sue in federal court.

Ehlena Fry was 5 years old when she began attending her local school in 2009 with her service animal, a hypoallergenic Goldendoodle named Wonder. After a trial period, the school refused to allow Wonder to continue to accompany her. Officials claimed that Ehlena was adequately accommodated by the 1:1 aide the district provided. But Wonder was trained to help Ehlena be more independent so she didn’t have to rely on people’s help. Her service animal helped her do intimate things like use the bathroom without assistance, and also to take off her coat, open and close doors and lockers, and pick up dropped items.

Rather than separate Ehlena from Wonder or force their daughter to be less independent than she was capable of, her parents homeschooled her until they found a school willing to let her be accompanied by Wonder. They then filed a lawsuit under  Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) since the ADA permits service animals in public institutions like schools. A lower court ruled against the Fry family since they hadn't first exhausted all remedies under IDEA.

The Court’s decision outlines a test for lower courts to apply. Federal courts will now ask (1) whether the plaintiff could have brought the same claim if the discrimination happened in another public facility (like a library); and (2) whether a non-student at the school (like a teacher) could sue for the same issue. If the answer to both questions is yes, then the complaint may be immediately brought in federal court. If not, the parents must bring the claim under the IDEA.

The ACLU of Michigan released this statement after the Court issued its decision.