Supreme Court hears case of disabled Michigan girl and her dog

The case of Wonder the goldendoodle — and a Jackson County school district’s decision not to let a girl with cerebral palsy bring her service dog to class — goes before the U.S. Supreme Court today, with Ehlena Fry and her parents pressing a case for damages against the district.

It’s not a question of coldheartedness, however: The case — Fry vs. Napoleon Community Schools, set for 10 a.m. — is less about 5-year-olds and goldendoodles than it is the technical nature of how federal statutes, namely the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, overlap.

Specifically, it’s about whether the Frys, who live in Manchester, were required to exhaust all their options for remedies under the latter act — which calls for administrative hearings, but doesn’t include cash damages — before bringing a legal claim under the former, as they Frys chose to do.

Lower courts ruled against the Frys before the Supreme Court agreed in June to take up the case. But their lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been working with the Frys, argue that prohibiting the service dog, Wonder, wasn’t an educational matter but one that denied Ehlena her “independence at school and constituted discrimination at a public facility” — which comes under the ADA.

The family can sue for damages under the ADA, but only if the eight-member Supreme Court agrees with their interpretation of the case, which stretches back several years. The Frys brought the case against the Napoleon Community Schools and the Jackson County Intermediate School District in 2012.

Ehlena is now 12 and no longer uses Wonder. But when she was 5, her family bought Wonder for her to help her retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, switch lights off and on and perform other tasks. The staff at Ezra Eby Elementary initially balked at the idea — there was a human aide available to help Ehlena with any of those tasks — but allowed it for a time before prohibiting her from using the dog.

Ehlena’s pediatrician prescribed Wonder to be with Ehlena at all times to help them solidify a working bond. After the school district prohibited the dog, her family eventually moved her to a new school. But the school district has argued that if the Frys had simply followed the process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, it would have likely been sorted out within months.

The American Civil Liberties Union  says the ruling, when one comes most likely next year, could impact students with disabilities across the country, if it allows them to sue under the ADA without first exhausting administrative procedures under the other statute, which may not even provide them the relief they seek.

(2016 © Detroit Free Press)


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