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The Supreme Court Makes It Easier for Disabled People to Sue Schools

The 8–0 decision rules that disabled children have rights to sue schools over violations against the Americans With Disabilities Act.

By David M. Perry


The spiral staircase at the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Roman Boed/Flickr)

Wonder the Goldendoodle was the Supreme Court plaintiff of 2016 most likely to deserve a scratch behind the ears, especially since the Supreme Court just ruled 8–0 in his — or really his owner’s — favor. Thanks to a favorable decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, children with disabilities and their caregivers will now be able to sue schools when they believe their rights civil rights have been violated. This doesn’t affect only those who depend on service dogs, but arguably also cases involving life-threatening and abusive practices of restraint and seclusion. Better yet, it bodes well for an even more significant case before the court, about the fundamental basics of educational quality for disabled children in America.

In 2009, the Fry family raised over $13,000 to provide a service dog to their daughter Ehlena, who has cerebral palsy. The dog performed many functions, including picking up objects, but also offered companionship and emotional support. Unfortunately for the Frys, Ehlena’s school argued that, because they were already providing a human aide, they didn’t have to let the dog in, and cited allergies and phobias. A bitter arbitration process followed, and eventually the Department of Education ruled for the Fry family. But the Frys were worried about resentment from school officials, so instead moved their daughter to a new school and sued for damages.

When a person with disabilities encounters alleged discrimination, it doesn’t matter whether it takes place in a school. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the disabled person can sue.

In response, the school’s lawyers cited clauses in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requiring people to “exhaust all IDEA administrative procedures before they are allowed to sue over access to education.” But is this really about the Free Appropriate Public Education mandated by law, which clearly has to run through IDEA, or is the school quite simply discriminating against Ehlena and Wonder? That was the decision before the Supreme Court, and the justices unanimously agreed with the Fry family’s attorneys. When a person with disabilities encounters alleged discrimination, it doesn’t matter whether it takes place in a school. Under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the disabled person can sue.

According to Sam Bagenstos, lead attorney for the Fry family, the case will have implications for other children and young adults. “This is important because it means that kids with disabilities can assert their rights without having unnecessary hurdles thrown in their way,” says Bagenstos, who has been litigating disability rights cases for 20 years, worked for the Department of Justice under President Barack Obama, and is now a professor at the University of Michigan law school. “It’s hard enough to go to court and enforce these rights without access hurdles.” Bagenstos adds that the decision might well apply to even more serious cases, saying that he reads the “logic of the decision” as applying to, “issues like abuse, seclusion, restraint, or other issues where you have a civil rights claim that’s really very separate from education quality.” As I’ve reported for Pacific Standard, disabled children frequently experience both systematic abuse and unjust criminalization in American schools. Fry v. Napoleon may allow plaintiffs in such terrible cases to avoid any attempt to use IDEA to block lawsuits.

Finally, Fry v. Napoleon is the first of two decisions expected to come down soon with implications for disability rights in schools. Endrew F. v. Douglas County goes right to the heart of disability and education, asking whether the law mandates significant or minimal levels of learning. It’s possible that, within a few weeks or months, the court will mandate that schools do much more to improve the quality of the Free Appropriate Public Education.

Predicting the Supreme Court is never certain, but the language about IDEA within Justice Elena Kagan’s decision suggests strong support for its educational mandates, even as the justices decided they didn’t apply to the Goldendoodle.

Wonder is now long since retired and Ehlena is happily at a more inclusive school. The Supreme Court’s work defending, and maybe even expanding, disability rights in American education this spring could just be getting started.