A girl named Ehlena and a dog named Wonder win at U.S. Supreme Court

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By Andrew Chung

<span class="articleLocation”>The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with a
disabled Michigan 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 8-0 that Ehlena Fry, 13, and her parents
may not be obligated to go through time-consuming administrative
appeals with the local school board before suing for damages for
the emotional distress she said she suffered by being denied the
assistance of her dog, a goldendoodle named Wonder.

Ehlena was born with cerebral palsy, a neurological
condition that severely limited her mobility. Wonder was trained
to help her balance, retrieve dropped items, open and close
doors, turn on lights, take off her coat and other tasks.

“I saw with my own eyes how Wonder helped my daughter grow
more self-reliant and confident,” Stacy Fry, Ehlena’s mother,
said in a statement. “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.”

The justices sent the case back to a lower appeals court to
determine whether Ehlena’s complaint involves the impermissible
denial of a proper special education.

The dispute arose in 2009 when Ehlena’s elementary school in
Napoleon, Michigan refused to allow her to attend school with
Wonder. The school said she already had a one-on-one human aide,
as part of her individualized special education program.

The family eventually moved to a different school district
where Wonder was welcomed. They filed suit in 2012 in federal
court, claiming discrimination under the federal Americans with
Disabilities Act, which permits service dogs in public
institutions.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the
family, said the ruling will remove unfair legal hurdles for
victims of discrimination that prevent students from seeking
justice guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Napoleon Community Schools Superintendent Jim Graham said he
had no comment.

Ehlena and her parents sued the school district seeking
money damages for emotional harm, claiming the school deprived
Ehlena of her independence, including in intimate settings such
as the bathroom.

Wednesday’s ruling overturned a 2015 decision by the 6th
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio upholding a
dismissal of the lawsuit. The appeals court had said that under
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a
federal law governing special education, the family had to
exhaust all of the administrative hearings in its service dog
dispute with local and state officials before filing suit.

Writing for the court on Wednesday, Justice Elena Kagan said
that if the substance of a lawsuit does not claim the denial of
a proper special education under IDEA, then exhausting the
administrative remedies is not required.



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