WASHINGTON—In a sweeping victory for students with disabilities nationwide, the US Supreme Court ruled today that a Michigan girl with cerebral palsy may sue for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act unrelated to the adequacy of her education without first exhausting administrative proceedings.
The unanimous ruling by the court in favor of 12-year-old Ehlena Fry, who was represented by the ACLU of Michigan, eliminates legal obstacles that have prevented other disabled victims of discrimination from seeking justice under the ADA. The decision also ends a circuitous five-year journey for the Fry family, who were drawn into controversy in 2012 after administrators at Ehlena’s former elementary school in Jackson, Mich., refused to allow the girl to bring her service dog—a Goldendoodle named Wonder—to class.
“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. “And, of course, we are delighted for Ehlena and the entire Fry family, who fought for as long as they did because they wanted to make sure that other children with disabilities wouldn’t have to endure the discrimination that Ehlena faced.”
The lawsuit was filed in 2012 against the Napoleon School District and the Jackson County Intermediate School District by the ACLU of Michigan after district officials barred Ehlena from bringing Wonder to school. Because Ehlena has a severe form of cerebral palsy that affects her legs, arms and body, she needs assistance with many of her daily tasks.
The ACLU contended that the districts discriminated against Ehlena in violation of the ADA by failing to make reasonable modifications to their policies and practices. However, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that claims brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) should be thrown out because she never asked for an administrative hearing under a separate law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The ACLU argued that IDEA administrative hearings are only required for violations of the ADA if the student is seeking relief that is also available under IDEA and, in this case, the money damages sought by the Frys are not available under IDEA.
"I saw with my own eyes how Wonder helped my daughter grow more self-reliant and confident,” said Stacy Fry, Ehlena’s mother. “We are thankful that the Supreme Court has clarified that schools cannot treat children with disabilities differently or stand in the way of their desired independence."
In October 2009, Ehlena's family took a major step to help Ehlena become independent when they acquired Wonder, a Goldendoodle that is specially trained to help Ehlena balance, retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, turn on lights and perform many other tasks. Wonder is hypoallergenic and has been trained to stay out of the way when he is not working. The community helped raise the necessary funds to obtain Wonder. However, the school district barred Ehlena from bringing Wonder to school.
In April 2010, after the ACLU of Michigan advocated on Ehlena's behalf, the school district agreed to allow Wonder to accompany her at school for a "trial period."
But school administrators required Wonder to remain in the back of the room during class, and he was not allowed to accompany Ehlena during recess, lunch, computer lab, library time and other activities. At the end of the school year, the district would not acknowledge that Wonder was a service dog, and would not discuss whether they would agree to his return in the fall.
Because the Frys did not want to separate Ehlena from Wonder for several hours a day, they made the difficult decision to homeschool Ehlena. With the help of the ACLU, they also filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the United States Department of Education. In May 2012, the OCR issued a finding that the school district violated Ehlena's rights under the ADA.
In order to settle the matter with OCR, the school district reluctantly agreed to allow Ehlena to attend school with Wonder. 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.
Therefore, the Frys enrolled Ehlena in a public school in Washtenaw County where the staff welcomed Ehlena and Wonder and saw their presence as an opportunity to promote diversity and inclusion of students with disabilities within the school.
In addition to Steinberg, the Frys were represented by University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Bagenstos, who argued the case, Jill Wheaton and James Hermon of the Dykema law firm, National ACLU Disability Counsel Susan Mizner and Claudia Center, and former National ACLU Legal Director Steven Shapiro.
To read the Supreme Court Opinion, click here.
For a video about Ehlena, click here.