Service dogs go to school

Ehlena Fry was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which significantly impairs her motor skills and mobility. Ehlena, originally an orphan in Calcutta, India, was adopted by Stacy and Brent Fry. In 2008, her pediatrician prescribed a service dog for Ehlena, and the community ran a fundraiser so that the Fry family could purchase a service dog. Wonder, the service dog, assisted Ehlena to open doors, turn on lights, pick up dropped items, remove her coat, and help balance while she transferred from her walker onto a chair or the toilet. 

The administration of Ezra Eby Elementary School told the Fry family that Wonder could not come to school with Ehlena. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, schools are obligated to provide children with disabilities an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to provide them free appropriate public education (FAPE). The school district argued that a human aide could provide the necessary help so that Ehlena could get FAPE. The school's decision to prohibit Wonder was upheld in the meeting held in 2010 related to Fry's IEP. The Fry family maintained that the service dog was necessary as a bridge to the child’s independence, and that the right to bring her service dog is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

The American Civil Liberties Union intervened to represent the Frys. At that point, the school allowed Ehlena to bring Wonder for a "trial period" from April 2010 until the end of the school year. The school, however, refused to allow Wonder to accompany Ehlena during lunch time, in the library, in computer labs, during recess, and during other school activities. Wonder also had to sit at the back of the classroom whenever a class was in session. After the trial period, the school informed Ehlena’s family that Wonder could not come to school for the 2010-2011 school year. 

Accordingly, the Frys homeschooled their daughter for the 2010-2011 school year. They also filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education. The office issued a determination letter that the school violated Ehlena Fry's rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to permit Wonder to accompany Ehlena and assist her at school, thus significantly limiting her ability to access the district's programs and activities with as much independence as possible.

The family then enrolled Ehlena and Wonder in a school located in an adjacent county. They then filed a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) seeking compensation for the humiliation the family endured at the hands of the school district. 

The lower courts dismissed the case. They pointed out that IDEA requires the family to exhaust all administrative remedies with the Michigan schools before going to court. The family responded that they were also making a claim under the ADA, which does not require an exhaustion of administrative remedies. They appealed the Judge’s decision to the Sixth Circuit Appellate court and again lost. They then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and got the matter before the Supreme Court. 

Two state Attorney Generals—Lori Swanson of Minnesota and Lisa Madigan of Illinois—filed an amicus brief in the case supporting Ehlena and Wonder. They acknowledged the importance of IDEA in terms of improving education opportunities for children with disabilities. They also acknowledged that IDEA requires an exhaustion of administrative remedies before the family could seek redress in court. They noted, however, that Fry family sought monetary redress under the ADA for the humiliation Ehlena and her family endured. They two attorneys general argued that IDEA doesn’t refer to a right to claim damages; only the ADA confers such a right. That being the case, they argued, Ehlena shouldn’t have her ADA right to redress adversely effected by the IDEA exhaustion requirement. 

Swanson and Madigan also argued that Ehlena’s request to bring Wonder to school was not related to Ehlena's academic program – hence not “educational” in nature. Because it was not an educational matter, they argued that there was no reason for the administrative exhaustion requirement to apply. They pointed out that the attendance by Wonder did not require a modification of an education plan. It required only a simple modification of school policy regarding service dogs. 

The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit and ruled for the Fry family. The Court held the following. 

  • The IDEA's      remedy exhaustion requirement does not apply when a lawsuit seeks relief      unrelated to the denial of a free appropriate public education      (FAPE).
  • To determine if a lawsuit seeks relief for the denial      of a FAPE or not, a court should examine the gravamen – equivalently, the      substance – of the plaintiff's complaint.

Swanson’s sidekick, Taffy, highly approved of the decision. 

Fry V. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S.Ct. 743 (2017),60