President’s Message: Service Dogs and the Supreme Court

by Kim Charlson

It is quite rare that a case relating to service dogs would make it all the way up the lofty legal heights to the Supreme Court of the United States, but that is exactly what happened with the case of Ehlena Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools.
On Feb. 22, 2017, the court ruled that if a school discriminates against a student with a disability using a guide or service dog/animal, the parents have the option to go directly to court to enforce the student’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The crux of this case was that the parents do not need to exhaust all the administrative and/or grievance procedures under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
What does that mean? It means that a case can be brought forth using Title II of the ADA and Section 504’s promise of non-discriminatory access to a public institution will supersede IDEA’s guarantee of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).
In this case, Ehlena Fry, a student with cerebral palsy who uses a trained service dog, was denied access to her service animal in the classroom environment.  The ruling means that a family does not have to exhaust the administrative remedies dictated by IDEA first. Any advocates who have dealt with school districts’ tendencies to drag out the hearings process can appreciate the significance of this decision!
Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the court, in which Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor joined, and in which Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Thomas joined. The eight justices held that exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative procedures is unnecessary where the essence of the complaint is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee of a free and appropriate public education. The IDEA guarantees individually tailored educational services, while Title II of the ADA and Section 504 promise non-discriminatory access to public institutions.
Six justices (Kagan, Roberts, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor) highlighted several “clues” to determine whether the essence of a complaint against a school involves denial of a FAPE, or instead address disability-based discrimination:
·         Could the individual have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred in a public facility that was not a school, e.g., a library?
·         Could an adult at the school (e.g., an employer or visitor) have pressed essentially the same grievance?
If the answer is yes, as in the case of the presence of a service animal, the case likely does not involve FAPE and exhaustion of IDEA administrative procedures is not required. If the answer is no, then the complaint probably concerns a FAPE and exhaustion would be required.
I commend the Supreme Court and their unanimous ruling in support of the civil rights of students using service dogs to allow them to be independent in the school or community. I hope that this decision will have far-reaching ramifications for many people with disabilities who attempt to make use of their service dogs in the public school setting.
As Penny Reeder, president of Guide Dog Users, Inc. so eloquently said, “It’s so awesome to see a unanimous Supreme Court decision having to do with an issue we all care so much about.” I couldn’t have said it better!