In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (February 23, 2017), the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Ehlena Fry, a child with cerebral palsy, should have her day in court to argue that “Wonder,” her service dog, may accompany her to school. Wonder is a trained service dog, recommended by Ehlena’s pediatrician. Wonder, a goldendoodle, helps Ehlena to live as independently as possible by assisting her with various life activities. In particular, Wonder aids Ehlena by retrieving dropped items, helping her balance when she uses her walker, opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights, helping her take off her coat, and helping her transfer to and from the toilet.
The school system refused to allow Wonder to join Ehlena in kindergarten after deciding that a human aide could provide the same assistance provided by Wonder. Later, the same year, Ehelena’s family again sought permission for Wonder to accompany Ehlena and the school agreed to a trial period. At the conclusion of the trial period, the school again said that Wonder was not welcome in the school. Ehlena’s family then filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). OCR agreed that the school was discriminating against Ehlena based on her disability. OCR analogized the school’s conduct to requiring a student who uses a wheelchair to be carried by an aide or requiring a blind student to be led around by a teacher instead of permitting him to use a guide dog or cane. In response to OCR’s decision, the school relented, but Ehlena’s parents moved her to a different school out of fear that school officials would resent OCR’s decision and make school difficult. They found a different school which welcomed both Ehlena and Wonder.
Ehlena’s family filed suit against the school in federal court. They sought a declaration that Ehlena’s rights were violated, and for money damages to compensate her for emotional distress, pain, embarrassment and mental anguish. The district court dismissed the case after finding that Ehlena did not exhaust her administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA generally requires aggrieved persons to use the administrative process first. It also extends that requirement to any claims under the American’s with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act that could have been brought under IDEA. The court of appeals agreed, affirming dismissal of the case.
The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case after examining IDEA’s purpose, the relief it provides and the scope of the administrative review requirement. First, the Supreme Court found that the only relief provided under IDEA is the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Therefore, an administrative review officer could not grant any relief unrelated to a FAPE. The court of appeals found that Ehlena’s claim was related because the refusal to allow Wonder to accompany Ehlena to school hurt Ehlena’s sense of independence and social confidence at school. The Supreme Court disagreed. If the claim could be brought by an adult (not covered by IDEA), or if the claim could be brought against a non-school (e.g., a library or a theatre), then the court should look further to determine whether the claim relates to provision of the FAPE. The opinion indicates there may be cases where the gravamen of the case centers on a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation to a child with a disability (disability-based discrimination), and has nothing to do with the FAPE. In those cases, IDEA’s mandate to exhaust administrative remedies would not apply.
The Supreme Court used the following example to illustrate its holding. Suppose a wheelchair bound student could not get into the school because the building lacks wheelchair ramps. Does the claim really have anything to do with education? After all, the same claim could be brought against a library or a theatre, and could be brought by an adult. “That the claim can stay the same in those alternative scenarios suggests that its essence is equality of access to public facilities, not adequate of special education.
In Ehlena’s case, the Supreme Court found there was insufficient evidence to make a final determination. The case was remanded for additional fact finding consistent with the Court’s holding. On remand, if the courts find that Ehlena's claim is based on discrimination rather than on provision of a FAPE, then Ehlena and Wonder will get their day in court.