Family challenges lower court rulings denying right to sue under ADA
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court Monday heard the case of a girl with cerebral palsy, her fluffy white goldendoodle service dog Wonder and a rural Michigan school district that banned the dog from the girl’s school.
Ehlena Fry, now 12, and her mother and father listened intently as justices heard oral arguments from lawyers representing the school district in Jackson County, Mich., and the Fry family, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The family asked the high court to review a federal appeals court ruling in favor of school officials.
Ehlena’s doctor had prescribed the specially trained service dog in 2009, when she was 5, and family and friends raised the $13,000 to pay for Wonder to accompany the girl to the school, about 75 miles southwest of Detroit.
Wonder helped Ehlena transfer from her walker to chairs and toilet seats, maintain balance and put on and remove her coats. He pressed electronic handicapped buttons to open doors and picked up objects she had dropped.
The school district barred Wonder, then allowed him for a 30-day trial period before forbidding him.
Then, after a 2012 decision by the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, which ruled the school district violated Ehlena’s rights, the school district invited Ehlena back, but the family said hostile treatment in the past raised fears of more of the same.
On Monday, the eight justices considered whether Ehlena’s family had to first exhaust administrative remedies through a lengthy process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), before suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as the school district argues.
The school district’s attorneys also argued a human aide the school provided Ehlena could help her as much as the dog. The school had said a few students were allergic to the dog, though he is a hypoallergenic breed, and that one child had been traumatized by his presence because he had been attacked by a dog.
The family sued in federal court seeking unspecified damages, claiming banning Wonder caused Ehlena to suffer emotional distress.
“We brought this all the way from rural Michigan to the Supreme Court so the humiliation and discrimination Ehlena faced when she was in kindergarten won’t have to happen to anybody else,” said Michael J. Steinberg, the Michigan ACLU’s legal director.
“At the heart of this case is whether families with kids with disabilities have to jump through pointless, time-consuming, expensive and emotionally draining proceedings when the administrative process won’t lead them to the relief they seek.”
Steinberg pointed out the IDEA covers only Ehlena’s education, not her physical and emotional independence, and that the federal law does not allow monetary damages.
As lawyers and the justices weighed the dry legal intricacies of the case, a handful of service dogs with disabled schoolchildren – their parents brought them to support the Frys — soaked up the sun on the plaza outside the Supreme Court. Countless visitors stopped to pet the dogs and talk to the children and their parents.
After the hour-long oral arguments, Ehlena’s mother, Stacy Fry, stood outside the court with her daughter and Wonder.
“We standing up for the rights of Ehlena and all the children and people who have disabilities to be as independent as possible,” Mrs. Fry told TMN. “School is the most important place for her to be accepted, and we want to help other kids and families so they don’t have to go through what we went through and so they’re not discriminated against as she has been.
“It’s all about her development and her being able to navigate her environment and become self-sufficient. When you have to rely on another person, you don’t have control over what’s going on in your life, you don’t have the voice that you need to grow up and be self-sufficient. His presence gave her the control she needs to become independent and social.”
Ehlena, petting Wonder outside the Supreme Court, said: “I want him in my school because he was a great friend of mine and he was very helpful, and I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let me bring him to school”
Samuel R. Bagenstos, Fry’s attorney, told the justices: “What we have said is the injury my client experienced is not a denial of education, but, for example, the humiliation that she experienced when she was forced to go to the toilet with the stall door open and four adults watching her because defendants did not trust her to use her dog to transfer to the toilet bowl.”
Several justices appeared to sympathize with the family.
Chief Justice John Roberts said forcing the family to go through administrative hearings lasting up to 105 days would be “kind of a charade” when they couldn’t get the relief they’re seeking by doing so.
When school district attorney Neal K. Katyal noted the length of the process, Roberts replied that “105 days is a big part of the school year.”
Justice Elena Kagan told Katyal, “Think of it this way: Suppose this girl wanted to go into a public library a couple of times a week and the library said, ‘You can’t take your dog here; we’re going to just provide you with a librarian who will help you do all the things that your dog otherwise helps you with,’ and the girl brings a suit.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Katyal she was “so horribly confused” by the school district’s position, given the Frys could not get monetary damages under the IDEA.
But Justice Stephen Breyer warned of opening the door to numerous ADA lawsuits filed by families of disabled school children.
The school district, along with the National School Boards Association, asserted doing so would cost schools millions of dollars.
The Obama administration sided with the Frys, calling the federal appeals court’s ruling wrong and saying it “leads to unsound results.”
The court is expected to rule by June in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools.