WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appears sympathetic to a 12-year-old Michigan girl with cerebral palsy who wants to sue school officials for refusing to let her bring a service dog to class.
Most of the justices hearing arguments in the case Monday seemed to agree that federal disability laws allow Ehlena Fry to pursue the case in court.
Lower courts ruled against her, saying the dispute over the fluffy white goldendoodle named Wonder first had to go through a lengthy administrative process.
The issue is important to disability groups that want to remove cumbersome hurdles that they say discourage people from pursuing their legal rights.
Fry and her parents say federal laws allow them to bypass administrative hearings and go directly to court. The school district claims the family is trying to evade a process that Congress put in place that encourages parents and educators to informally resolve educational disputes.
But Chief Justice John Roberts said it would be “kind of a charade” to force the family through administrative proceedings if they can’t get the relief they want. He noted that the Frys are seeking money damages for the emotional harm Ehlena suffered; they are not trying to work out a compromise with school officials.
Justice Stephen Breyer said he was concerned about gutting the informal process Congress planned, but said allowing the lawsuit made sense if exhausting administrative remedies “would be futile.”
The dispute began when Fry’s family sought to use the service dog starting in 2009, when Ehlena started kindergarten and was suffering from severe mobility problems. Wonder helped her open doors, pick up items and provided her a measure of independence.
Her school district 75 miles southwest of Detroit initially refused to allow Wonder at school and insisted an adult aide could provide all the help Fry needed. Officials later relented a bit, but then placed so many restrictions on the dog, her parents decided to home-school her. She later transferred to another school district that welcomed Wonder.
School district’s response
The school district says the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allows it to bar the dog in favor of having a teacher’s aide help Ehlena. That law requires the family to first go through administrative proceedings to contest school decisions.
But the family says it has an independent right to sue for damages under a different law — the Americans with Disabilities Act — because the district refused to accommodate Wonder over a two-and-a-half year period.
Samuel Bagenstos, Fry’s attorney, said the time-consuming administrative process the school is demanding “can’t give them the relief they are seeking.”
He said her emotional damages included having to go to the school bathroom with four adults watching instead of simply going alone with Wonder to help.
Representing the school district, lawyer Neal Katyal said as long as the disagreement could possibly be resolved informally, the parents should not be allowed to make an “end run” around the law.
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she was “horribly confused” by Katyal’s position because the family could no longer get anything by going through the administrative process.
Fry was 5 years old when she first sought to bring Wonder to school, but her independence has improved and she now attends school without Wonder.
The girl and her family were at the court to watch the arguments. Wonder waited on the steps outside the courthouse since he no longer works as a service dog.