The United States Supreme Court sided with a 13-year old girl with cerebral palsy in her legal battle to bring a service dog named Wonder to class.
Ehlena Fry and her family had filed a lawsuit against her school district after they were told Wonder wasn’t welcome on campus. Lower courts in their home state of Michigan had ruled the Fry family would have to wade through an exhausting administrative process before filing litigation.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her opinion that jumping across every hurdle and bound isn’t always necessary in cases like Ehlena’s. The unanimous decision by the Supreme Court justices determined that federal disability laws might allow Ehlena and her family to go to court without first pursuing every possible administrative outcome. Although the ruling didn’t offer a judgment on whether the Fry family could succeed in court, it did suggest the outcome could be contingent upon the merits of their argument.
Kagan gave the example of two instances wherein a district might be illegally neglecting the needs of a child. The first was a shut-and-close example of a library or building entrance which didn’t provide ramps or any facility to accommodate differently-abled persons. The other was a hypothetical failure for a teacher to provide remedial mathematics tutoring to a special needs child, with the success of a possible lawsuit dependent on whether it could be shown the school had not provided an adequate education.
Wonder had been specially trained to help Ehlena with simple living and navigation tasks. The goldendoodle could turn on lights and open doors. Wonder also helps Ehlena keep her balance and retrieve small objects. The service dog was intended to give its master a measure of independence which would have been otherwise impossible for her to maintain on her own.
The school district claims it wasn’t at fault because it provided an alternative to Wonder in the form of a human aide and mentor. Under the Disabilities Education Act, administrators do have the authority to replace service dogs with specially trained people. The district, with backing from the Michigan School Boards Association, stated that the cost of providing individualized education plans could cost schools millions of dollars.
However, Kagan and the other justices were concerned at how they let the drama play out for two-and-a-half years before trying to make concessions for Wonder and Ehlena.
The American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan praised the Supreme Court decision as a blow against inequality.
“This victory will, once and for all, remove unfair legal hurdles for victims of discrimination across the country that prevents students from seeking justice guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Michael Steinberg, the legal director of ACLU in the state of Michigan. Steinberg represented the Fry family in court on behalf of the organization.
Ehlena, now in the sixth grade, has improved her mobility and can get around without the help of a service dog. Wonder has retired and now lives with the Fry family as a pet.
A Girl Named Ehlena and a Dog Named Wonder Win at U.S. Supreme Court