Justices rule in favor of Michigan girl in dispute over service dog

The Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with Ehlena Fry, a 13-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who fought school officials for years to bring her service dog - Wonder, a goldendoodle trained in Xenia - to class. Ehlena was 5 when she received Wonder, according to Karen Shirk, founder at 4 Paws for Ability.

Fry's family sought to use Wonder when Ehlena started kindergarten and suffered from severe mobility problems. Wonder was trained to help E.F. retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, turn on and off lights, and take off her coat.

In the case of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, the Napoleon Community school district in MI said that it had already provided a one-on-one support person to help the child at school, and the dog wasn't needed. She later transferred to a different public school that welcomed Wonder. Disability advocacy groups were hoping for a more sweeping opinion that would make it easier for disabled students to protect their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Abbreviating the student's name, the ruling hinges on whether the school fulfilled its obligations to provide Ehlena with a free appropriate public education, or FAPE, which states are funded to provide under IDEA, short for the Individuals with Disabilities in Education.

Because the court was not briefed on that issue, Kagan said they had to remand the case for further proceedings.

Wonder the Goldendoodle waits outside the Supreme Court on October 31, 2016, as his owners battle against the MI school district that barred him from accompanying student Ehlena Fry as a service dog.

"This victory will, once and for all, remove unfair legal hurdles for victims of discrimination across the country that prevent students from seeking justice guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act", said Michael J. Steinberg. Wednesday's ruling enables the family to sue for damages under ADA without undergoing a lengthy administrative process.

The family sued in federal court five years ago, alleging emotional distress and seeking unspecified damages over Wonder being banned by the Jackson County school district, about 75 miles southwest of Detroit. "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. The school said she already had a one-on-one human aide, as part of her individualized special education program. However, after meeting with school administrators, Ehlena's parents continued to have serious concerns about the school's attitude toward Ehlena and the negative impact it would have on her education and development. Of the more than 1,000 service dogs the non-profit has placed, about 60 percent have accompanied children to school, Shirk said.

"Although the court provides these clues for the goal of assisting the lower courts, I am afraid that they may have the opposite effect", he said.

The case is Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools.

  • Larry Hoffman