Justices send dispute over service dog back to lower court

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with a disabled MI girl whose school refused to let her bring her service dog to class, making it easier for students like her to seek redress for discrimination in federal court.

The justices ruled unanimously on Wednesday that federal disability laws may allow Ehlena Fry to pursue her case in court without first having to wade through a lengthy administrative process.

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.

Controversy behind the case: The dispute began when Ehlena's family sought to use Wonder at Napoleon Community Schools in MI starting in 2009, when Ehlena started kindergarten and had severe mobility problems.

"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.

The girl's parents originally sought to allow her to use Wonder when she started kindergarten and was suffering from severe mobility problems.

The district initially refused to allow Wonder at school and insisted an adult aide could provide Fry needed help.

Ehlena Fry's goldendoodle is trained to open handicap doors, pick up objects and help her owner move from a walker to the toilet - everyday activities hard for someone with limited motor skills.

School officials later relented to some degree, but placed so many restrictions on the dog that Ehlena's parents instead took the decision to home-school her. Eventually, the Frys moved Ehlena to a new school where Wonder was welcomed. "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 Michigan school district argued that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allowed it to bar the dog in favor of the aide. 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.

"Nothing in the nature of the Fry's suit suggests any implicit focus on the adequacy of E. F.'s education", Kagan wrote. 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.

But Kagan did not completely eliminate the possibility of a different outcome.

"Although the court provides these clues for the objective of assisting the lower courts, I am afraid that they may have the opposite effect", he said. But the school district didn't admit liability in the case, and the child transferred to another school.

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