Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Key Education, Service Dog Case

Ehlena hugs her fluffy white service dog

by Andy Jones
November 10, 2016

The Supreme Court heard argument October 31 in a case that seeks to clarify the interplay between two major laws when determining what remedies are available to children with disabilities for civil rights violations in schools.

For years, Ehlena Fry, a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, battled the Napoleon and Jackson County Intermediate School Districts over her use of a service dog, named Wonder, which she has relied on since she was five years old.

Most disputes between special education students and school districts are governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires students and their parents to first “exhaust their remedies” by seeking relief in an administrative hearing, prior to bringing lawsuits in federal court.

However, the Americans with Disabilities Act applies where the dispute involves service animals, as well as communication devices and the school’s structural accessibility, among other issues. Further, monetary damages are only available under the ADA.

Shortly after transferring to a different school district in 2012, Fry filed an ADA lawsuit against her former school districts, seeking monetary damages. The School Districts argue she was first required to bring an administrative hearing under the IDEA, an argument adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in June 2015

The ACLU of Michigan, which is representing Fry, argues this step is unnecessary and delays relief for students harmed by ADA violations in schools, sometimes for years.

In an amicus brief, the National Disability Rights Network, Disability Rights New York, Equip for Equality and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network strongly urged the Supreme Court to overturn the decision.

“The decision under review, Fry v. Napoleon Schools…reduces children with disabilities to second-class citizens in our system of justice when they seek relief for violations of their civil rights that happen to occur during the school day,” the brief states. “No such obstacle exists if children experience those violations outside the school context, or if schools violate the civil rights of adults or non-students with disabilities.”

The full amicus brief can be read here [PDF].

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.

Photo: Ehlena and Wonder, from ACLU-Michigan