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Supreme Court Hears Case on Service Dogs in Schools

October 31, 2016
Source: U.S. News & World Report

The Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments over whether a [girl with a disability] who was prevented from having her service dog in school could sue the district for emotional damages.

Wonder, the now semi-retired goldendoodle at the center of the lawsuit, Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, sat outside on the plaza as the case was being heard. He wasnt alone three other service dogs sat with him. The ACLU of Michigan, who helped defend the case, tells U.S. News that the dogs had received clearance but did not go in.

The case involves a dispute between a Jackson County, Michigan, school district and a family whose daughter, Ehlena Fry, now 12, was not allowed to bring a service dog to school under constitutional rights provided for people with disabilities. Fry has cerebral palsy, which limits some of her motor skills but is not a cognitive disability.

Members of the eight-justice court had some questions about whether allowing the plaintiff to receive damages would change the way that other disability cases are litigated in the future. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, Congress set up a system where schools are supposed to work with families to resolve issues, and if they cannot resolve them then at that point a family can file a lawsuit.

The Frys, however, filed their lawsuit under different provisions for people with disabilities: the Americans with Disabilities [Act] and the Rehabilitation Act, which arent related to whether a child is provided tools that help her learn.

If Fry wins, then other families may seek to bypass the administrative fixes Congress set up and file similar lawsuits.

"You [will] have more levers if you sue through all the tracks," pointed out Chief Justice John Roberts, referring to different laws for people with disabilities. He also said that he believed that any case related to disabilities was likely to cause some emotional distress, so that argument could be used many times in the future.

Justice Stephen Breyer was particularly concerned about the consequences of allowing other similar lawsuits to happen and Justice Sonya Sotomayor called Frys case "ideal" because it was so specific, but said most cases involving disability in education can be more mixed.

Frys doctor prescribed the service dog to her at age 5 to help her pick up items she dropped, use a walker, open and close doors, turn off the lights, remove her coat and help transfer her to and from the toilet all tasks that are not specific to her learning but can help her be more independent at school. The school argued that it had provided her with a one-on-one aide and had met the "free and appropriate education" requirement under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Justice Elena Kagan compared the case to someone being unable to bring a dog into a public library, and said many students have disabilities that do not require personalized education plans.

"She was kept from a public place in a way that caused distress and emotional harm," she said. "Just because IDEA exists doesnt mean you cant file public claims."

Fry was allowed to use the dog for a trial period with limitations, including keeping the dog at the back of the classroom or using the dog in the library or at recess. The school district then refused to allow the dog in school at all, saying that one student was afraid of dogs and others were allergic even though Wonder is a hypoallergenic breed. Frys parents took her out of school and homeschooled her for two years as a result of the schools decision.

They then complained with the Office of Civil Rights, who agreed that the dog was supposed to help Fry function independently at school. The school district said Fry could come back, but the family declined because they were afraid the school would make her return difficult. They transferred her to a neighboring school and sought declaratory relief and attorneys fees, as well as compensation for the period that Wonder wasnt allowed at school.

Families shouldnt have to go through the burdensome and time-consuming process of needing to prove that the other disability provisions had been violated outside of educational services, Frys attorney said.

"They have said all along that because she was given a one-on-one aide then her education requirements were met," Samuel Bagenstos said in his oral arguments on behalf of Fry, adding that instead the damages were emotional, including making Fry use the bathroom with the door open as adults watched.

Neal Katyal, who defended the case on behalf of Napoleon Community Schools, argued that the provision of whether a student can have a dog in school is something that is available under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Congress had the specific administrative requirement in mind when it passed disability rights laws, he argued.

Sotomayor expressed aggravation with the schools position.

"I [am] so confused by your position," she said. "I [am] so horribly confused."

Katyal replied that he understood that the provisions appear awkward, but added "that was the statute Congress [set] out."

A ruling is expected at the end of June.

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