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A Goldendoodle Named Wonder Just Won a Supreme Court Case

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on February 23, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

All dogs go to Heaven, or so late 80s children's movies promise us, but only some make it to the Supreme Court. One such dog is Wonder, who won his first Supreme Court victory yesterday. Talk about a good boy!

Alright, Wonder didn't technically win -- his family did. Wonder, you see, is a Goldendoodle service dog for a Ehlena Fry, a 13-year-old Michigan girl with cerebral palsy. The Frys had sued after Ehlena's kindergarten refused to allow Wonder to accompany her to school. The school district, however, argued that the Frys needed to jump through several more administrative hoops before they could have their day in court. The Supreme Court disagreed, issuing a unanimous ruling yesterday on behalf of the Frys and, of course, Wonder too.

Service Dogs and Administrative Exhaustion

Wonder joined the Frys in 2009, to help Ehlena with her severe cerebral palsy. Ehlena's parents, Stacy and Brent Fry, wanted the dog to join their daughter at school, in order to help their daughter build confidence and socialize.

The school refused, however, since Ehlena already had a human aide with her. The Frys began homeschooling their daughter, instead, and filed a complaint with the Department of Education. Though the DOE sided with the Frys and school officials eventually agreed to allow the dog to come to class, the Frys worried about backlash and resentment from school officials and enrolled Ehlena elsewhere.

Then they sued the school, the local and regional school district, along with Ehlena's original principal, for violating Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

That's when things got tricky, thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The IDEA seeks to ensure that children with disabilities have a "free appropriate public education" and establishes a series of administrative procedures to make sure such an education is provided. It was through Ehlena's IDEA-mandated individualized education program that the school provided her with a human aide, for example.

The language of the IDEA says that it does not restrict or limit other rights or remedies, but the law also includes an exhaustion provision, stating that plaintiffs who "seek relief that is also available under" the IDEA must first exhaust IDEA's administrative procedures. The school districts claimed that this provision prevented the Frys from bringing suit under the ADA.

That exhaustion requirement, the Court noted, was a response to the Supreme Court's 1984 Smith v. Robinson ruling. There, the Court had held that the IDEA was the "exclusive avenue" for children to challenge the adequacy of their education. Congress rejected that interpretation, amending the law to clarify that suits under the ADA and other acts were not precluded by the IDEA. But Congress also limited what Justice Kagan, writing for the Court, called an "'anything goes' regime," mandating exhaustion for relief also available under the IDEA.

Looking to the Gravamen of the Complaint

So, where's that leave the Frys? Victorious. When the gravamen of a complaint is "something other than the denial of the IDEA's core guarantee" of a free appropriate public education, Justice Kagan explained, the plaintiffs are not limited by the IDEA's administrative procedures.

There are accommodations the ADA or other laws might mandate, for example, accommodations that the IDEA does process does not, and cannot, address, since they do not go towards the adequacy of the student's education. Accessibility through, say, wheelchair ramps might have educational consequences, but it doesn't go primarily to a free appropriate public education -- any adult could bring suit for such an accommodation as well.

Any analysis of whether the IDEA's exhaustion requirements apply, the Court ruled, must go to the crux of the relief sought, not whether the injuries were simply "educational" in nature.

The Frys alleged, the Court explained, no failure by the school to provide Ehlena with an adequate education. Rather, they alleged discrimination against her because of her disability, just as any adult, forbidden from bringing their service animal into the school, could have.

The Court didn't foreclose the possibility that further proceedings on remand might result in a different determination, but for now, the Frys have won. And so has Wonder.

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