A unanimous Supreme Court said on Wednesday that the parents of a girl born with cerebral palsy can sue for damages after public school officials barred her service dog from her classroom.
In the case of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, the Napoleon Community school district in Michigan said that it had already provided a one-on-one support person to help the child at school, and the dog wasn’t needed. The family then sued on the child’s behalf in federal court to recover damages for the period when the dog was barred from the school, on the theory the child suffered emotional and social harm.
A district court dismissed the lawsuit, saying that the family needed to find an administrative solution with the school under another act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA).
In her opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said that the lawsuit could proceed without the administrative solution required under IDEA, but the lower courts had unsettled issues to consider.
“We hold that exhaustion is not necessary when the gravamen of the plaintiff ’s suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee—what the Act calls a ‘free appropriate public education,’” Kagan said. (The gravamen is the most serious part of the complaint.)
Kagan pointed out that “the parties have not addressed whether the Frys initially pursued the IDEA’s administrative remedies, and the record is cloudy as to the relevant facts. On remand, the court below should establish whether (or to what extent) the Frys invoked the IDEA’s dispute resolution process before filing suit.”
The child in the case, known as E.F., was born with cerebral palsy. When the girl was the age of five, a pediatrician prescribed Wonder the Goldendoodle to the girl and her family to help her with daily tasks.
The family withdrew E.F. from school after the dog incident, deciding on homeschooling as an option, and it filed a civil rights complaint, alleging the school district violated the federal Americans with Disabilities and Rehabilitation acts. A civil rights panel ruled that the school district violated the child’s rights, and the school agreed to let the child and her dog attend school together. But the school district didn’t admit liability in the case, and the child transferred to another school.
The family then sued, claiming E.F. suffered emotional and social harm. A district court dismissed the lawsuit, saying that the family needed to find a solution with the school under IDEA. A divided federal Sixth Circuit Court panel agreed.
The Justice Department had urged the Court to take the case to resolve a split among several federal circuit courts on the interpretation of the acts. “This case offers the Court a suitable vehicle in which to clarify the law and effectuate Congress’s goal of preserving freestanding causes of action—apart from the IDEA—as viable mechanisms for protecting children with disabilities,” it argued.