By now, you’ve been in a presentation or read an article about Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 580 U.S. ___, (2017), one of the two landmark special education cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017. The Fry family sued the school district alleging it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”) by refusing to allow their daughter, E.F., to bring her service dog, Wonder, to school with her. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where the Court held that exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative procedures is unnecessary where the “gravamen” of the plaintiff’s lawsuit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s guarantee to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The Court remanded the case to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether the gravamen of the family’s complaint regarding Wonder sought relief for the denial of a FAPE. You can read our blog post explaining the Court’s decision here (scroll down to about halfway through the post).
On remand, the Sixth Circuit court examined the Frys’ complaint, and found that it did not seek relief for the denial of a FAPE. Instead, the complaint alleged disability-based discrimination without referring to the special education services provided to E.F. refusing to allow Wonder was discriminatory, not a denial of FAPE. The court also considered the two hypothetical questions posed by the Supreme Court and determined that the “gravamen” of the Fry’s compliant is that, regardless of whether she was provided a FAPE, the school district violated E. F.’s rights under the ADA and Section 504 by denying her access to school with her service dog. Finally, the court considered the history of the proceedings between the parties. The court noted that when the Frys originally contacted the school to address access to the school for E.F. with her service dog, they referenced only the ADA. They did not mention the IDEA or any questions or concerns about the IEP. Instead, it was the school who invoked the IDEA’s procedures each time the service dog issue was raised. The Sixth Circuit ruled that the Fry's claims were not subject to the IDEA's exhaustion requirements and struck the school’s affirmative defense that the Frys failed to exhaust administrative remedies.
Both parties then moved for summary judgment. E.F. asked the court to rule in her favor as to liability on her intentional discrimination claim, and then schedule a jury trial to determine damages. The school filed a summary judgment motion asking the court to rule in its favor and dismiss this case. The Sixth Circuit rejected the arguments raised by both parties in support of their motions. E.F’s ADA and Section 504 claims for intentional discrimination and failure to accommodate will proceed to a jury trial.
E.F. was 5 years old when this case was filed. She is now 15 and a jury will now decide whether she can recover money damages from the school’s decision not to allow Wonder to attend kindergarten. Perhaps the case will finally be decided in time for us to know whether Wonder can attend E.F.’s high school graduation!