Duly Noted . . .

SCOTUS grants review of ACLU disability rights case regarding Michigan student

The U.S. Supreme Court has announced it will hear the case of Ehlena Fry, a 12-year-old girl from Jackson with cerebral palsy who, at age 5, was banned from bringing her service dog to class. At the heart of the appeal is whether students in certain circumstances can bring claims under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) without first exhausting administrative processes under a separate law.

Said Michael J. Steinberg, ACLU of Michigan legal director, “We're encouraged that the Supreme Court will give Ehlena her day in court. To force a child to choose between her independence and her education is not only illegal, it is heartless.”

The suit was filed in 2012 against Napoleon School District and Jackson County Intermediate School District after district officials barred Ehlena from bringing her doctor-prescribed service dog to school. Because Ehlena has severe cerebral palsy, she needs assistance with many of her daily tasks.

The ACLU contends that the districts discriminated against Ehlena in violation of the ADA. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that claims under ADA should be thrown out because Ehlena never asked for an administrative hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The ACLU argues that IDEA administrative hearings are only required for violations of the ADA if the student seeks relief also available under IDEA and, in this case, the money damages sought by the Frys are not available under IDEA.

The dog, Wonder, is a Goldendoodle  specially trained to help Ehlena retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, and do many other tasks. Wonder has been trained to stay out of the way. The community helped raise the funds for Wonder, but the school district barred Ehlena from bringing the dog to school.

In April 2010, after the ACLU of Michigan advocated, the school district allowed Wonder to accompany Ehlena at school for a “trial period,” but Wonder was not allowed to be right next to her most of the day. At the end of the year, the district would not acknowledge that Wonder was a service dog, nor discuss whether they would agree to his return in the fall.

The Frys decided to homeschool Ehlena, and filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights (OCR). In May 2012, the OCR issued a finding that the district violated Ehlena's rights under the ADA.

The complaint is at www.aclumich.org/sites/default/files/FryComplaint_0.pdf

Steinberg, Jill Wheaton and Jerry Hermon of Dykema, and others will represent Ehlena along with  U of M Law Professor Samuel Bagenstos, who will argue the case.