Service Animal Owner Wins in Supreme Court

A goldendoodle looks directly at the camera

by Andy Jones
February 28, 2017

In a major victory for disability rights advocates, the Supreme Court, in ordering an appellate court to rehear a case by an 8-0 vote on February 22, has made it easier for families of students with disabilities to pursue Americans with Disabilities Act claims against schools.

The case centered on Ehlena Fry and her goldendoodle, Wonder. In 2012, Fry’s family sued her Michigan school district, contending that its refusal to allow her to be accompanied by her service dog violates the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The question before the Supreme Court centered on the interplay between these two laws and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s governing special education law.

The school districts sought to dismiss the claims, alleging that Fry first had to seek relief in an administrative hearing under the IDEA, pointing to a separate federal statute barring other types of disability discrimination claims against schools where the plaintiff is “seeking relief that is also available under” the IDEA.

Fry’s family countered that they are not seeking changes to her educational curriculum and thus their claim is outside the IDEA’s purview. Further, they are seeking monetary damages, which are not available under the IDEA.

Both lowers courts ruled for the schools, but the Supreme Court reversed, sending the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit for further hearings on the ADA and Section 504 claims.

"Nothing in the nature of the Frys’ suit suggests any implicit focus on the adequacy of (her) education," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the Court. "Consider...that the Frys could have filed essentially the same complaint if a public library or theater had refused admittance to Wonder.

"Or similarly, consider that an adult visitor to the school could have leveled much the same charges if prevented from entering with his service dog. In each case, the plaintiff would challenge a public facility’s policy of precluding service violating (the ADA’s) and § 504’s equal access requirements."

The National Disability Rights Network, which wrote an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the Fry family with Disability Rights New York, Equip for Equality and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, applauded the decision.

“This entire case could have been avoided if the school district had simply let Ehlena bring Wonder to school with her," Curt Decker, NDRN’s executive director, said in a news release. "Let this decision send a strong message to school districts across the country. When they discriminate against students with disabilities, there will be consequences."

More information on service animals is available on DRW's Tools to help you Service Animals page.

Disability Rights Washington, Disability Rights New York and Equip for Equality are the designated protection and advocacy agencies in Washington, New York and Illinois, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.