Supreme court review sought in service dog case

Ehlena and Wonder
Request for Supreme Court Review of Service Dog Case

The ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan filed a Petition for a Writ for Certiorari [PFD] on October 15, asking the Supreme Court to resolve a conflict as to when plaintiffs must exhaust their remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, prior to bringing complaints against school districts under other federal statutes.

“This case could remove an unauthorized hurdle for victims of discrimination across the country who seek justice for violation of rights guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act,” ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg said in a news release. “It’s time for the Supreme Court to settle a dispute among the lower courts and give Ehlena Fry her day in court.

“To force a child to choose to between her independence and her education is not only illegal, it is heartless.”

The dispute centers on conflicting interpretations of the Handicapped Children Protection Act, a 1986 law passed by Congress that directly overturned the Supreme Court’s Smith v. Robinson decision from two years prior. In that ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that the IDEA, the nation’s governing special education law, provides the “exclusive avenue” for asserting disability related educational-rights claims.

The HCPA specified that plaintiffs can bring claims on behalf of children with disabilities against schools for non-IDEA claims. However, if the non-IDEA claim is “seeking relief that is also available” under the IDEA, they must first exhaust their state administrative remedies, which in most cases means they must first request a hearing before a district hearing officer or state administrative law judge.

Ehlena Fry is an 11-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. At age 5, her pediatrician prescribed for her a service dog, a goldendoodle named Wonder, who is special trained to help her balance, retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, and turn on lights, among other tasks. Between 2009 and 2012, Fry’s family was in constant conflict with the Napoleon and Jackson County Intermediate School Districts regarding Fry’s rights to be accompanied by Wonder on school premises. Eventually they transferred to another school district.

In similar cases, the preferred first step may have been to request a hearing under the IDEA. Instead, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on Fry’s behalf in federal court under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, on the basis that the school districts discriminated against Fry on the basis of her disability.

The ACLU argues it was not required to first exhaust the IDEA’s state administrative remedies because it is not “seeking relief that is also available” under the IDEA. Specifically, it is seeking monetary damages for the Fry’s emotional suffering during the three-year ordeal, which are permissible only under the ADA and Section 504, not the IDEA.

The District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in a 2-1 decision issued in July, interpreted the word “relief” differently than the ACLU. While the ACLU focused exclusively on the remedy, referring to the availability of the damages, the 6th Circuit found that ADA claims should not fall under the exception because the Frys’ substantive claims could have been litigated under the IDEA.

“Although the Frys seek money damages, a remedy unavailable under the IDEA, rather than an injunction, this does not in itself excuse the exhaustion requirement,” the 6th Circuit stated. “Otherwise, plaintiffs could evade the exhaustion requirement simply by ‘appending a claim for damages.'”

This interpretation is in line with that of five other federal circuit courts. However, the 9th Circuit, in a 2011 case [PDF], followed the ACLU’s interpretation, but the Supreme Court declined a petition to review that decision.