U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court rules for girl who wanted to bring her service dog to school

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that the family of a Michigan girl with cerebral palsy can pursue a disabilities suit against her school for banning her service dog.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the unanimous opinion (PDF) finding that, based on the lawsuit allegations, the family was not required to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act before suing.

The Ezra Eby Elementary School had banned the service dog, a goldendoodle named Wonder, in 2009, though it later relented. The school district had reasoned that Wonder didn’t need to help the girl, identified as E.F., because she already had a human aide. Wonder was trained to help E.F. retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, turn on and off lights, and take off her coat. E.F.’s pediatrician had recommended the dog stay with E.F. at all times to increase bonding.

The family’s suit against the school district suit relied on the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, rather than the IDEA law.

Kagan said exhaustion wasn’t necessary because the substance of the suit wasn’t based on a denial of the IDEA law’s guarantee of a free appropriate education. She remanded the suit, however, for a determination whether the family had sought remedies under the IDEA law before filing the suit.

If the family “started down that road,” Kagan said, “the court should decide whether their actions reveal that the gravamen of their complaint is indeed the denial of a [free appropriate education], thus necessitating further exhaustion.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote a concurring opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas. Alito disagreed with part of the opinion that he viewed as providing misleading clues to lower courts on how to determine when parents can sue.

The case was closely watched by the disability community, according to USA Today.

The case is Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools.

Related article:

ABAJournal.com: “SCOTUS to hear case involving service dog named Wonder”

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