The Washington State Supreme Court rules that a previous decision must be reviewed in the case of a school district that banned a service dog.
A unanimous vote by the Washington State Supreme Court will ask a lower court to reconsider whether a Washington family can sue the Jackson County school district for discriminating against their daughter by not allowing her service dog to accompany her to school.
This stems from a suit brought by the Fry family regarding daughter Ehlena and her service dog, Wonder, who wasn’t allowed in her school. Previously, the lower U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Fry family should exhaust all remedies under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, the Supreme Court ruled that this wasn’t an education issue but a discrimination issue, and the lower court should review its previous decision.
It all started back in 2012, when the Fry family sued both the Napoleon Community Schools and Jackson County Intermediate Schools district. The suit was brought about because the school wouldn’t allow Ehlena Fry, who suffers from Cerebral Palsy, to bring service dog, Wonder, with her into the school. Five years ago, the lower courts ruled that this was an issue that fell under IDEA, which guarantees that students with disabilities receive free and appropriate education. The Fry family had to exhaust all courses of action under IDEA, which is a federal act, before they could sue the school.
The Fry family’s lawyers argued, however, that this was not a case in which Ehlena’s education was at stake. Instead, they argued that she was being discriminated against as an individual with a disability–the student had been denied access to her service dog, so the matter fell under a different federal act (Disability Discrimination).
They vowed to take their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if they had to… but they didn’t have to. That’s because the State Supreme Court agreed with the Fry family, saying that their lawsuit was not one about the adequacy of Ehlena’s education, and therefore not under IDEA. Instead, the suit is being brought about because of her physical and emotional independence, and the school’s discrimination against her disability, not educational, needs.
Further, the State Justices questioned whether or not the lower courts would have required the Frys to go through the steps of IDEA were Ehlena prevented access to her service dog at a public library or theater. They reasoned that because they probably would not, the earlier decision needed to be reviewed.
The lower court could still decide in the school district’s favor, which means the Fry family would have to go through IDEA. However, this issue is moot — Ehlena moved to a different school that welcomed Wonder, and since then, Wonder is now 10 and has retired from service duty. Should the lower court require the continued pursuit of justice, doing so would be a matter of principle, but the Fry family is willing to tackle that fight for people and their service dogs.
And so, the case goes back to the lower court. It’s an important one, as it deals directly with disabled people and service dog access. We’ll be watching to see whether the lower courts agree upon the importance of a service dog–in all situations.
Lori Ennis is a wife, mama and friend to all animals. A self-confessed “Hot Mess,” she lives wherever the Marine Corps takes her husband. Currently, that’s Maryland with her very spoiled Labrador Retriever-mix rescue pups and a ton of saltwater fish just tanking around. Lori’s family has fostered dogs for years, mostly Golden Retrievers, and knows no home is complete without an animal buddy (or seven)!