A 'Wonder'ful outcome at the Supreme Court

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By Marie E. Matyjaszek

You may recall a previous column about a young girl named Ehlena Fry, and her fight against Napoleon (Michigan) Community School’s refusal to allow her service dog, Wonder, to assist her while obtaining her education. Her family sued the school, intermediate school district, and the former principal, for the perceived civil rights violation. The lower courts sided with the school, and ruled that Ehlena had to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a legal action.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided to change Ehlena’s luck, and on February 22, 2017, it unanimously ruled that Ehlena could file her legal action without exhausting the administrative remedies available first. Of primary focus was determining if the substance of the complaint was based around the denial of a “FAPE” – which stands for “free appropriate public education,”or, if the main concern is “disability-based discrimination.”

In writing for the court, Justice Elena Kagan provided a hypothetical, asking if “the plaintiff [could] have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school – say, a public theater or library; [a]nd second, could an adult at the school – say, an employee or visitor – have pressed essentially the same grievance.” 

As Ehlena’s lawsuit concerned discrimination based on disability, and did not focus on a FAPE denial, the lawsuit should have been allowed to proceed through the court system, without the exhaustion of the administrative process. The Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals’ ruling, and remanded the case so that a determination could be made relative to whether or not the crux of Ehlena’s lawsuit is the “adequacy of special education.”

The distinction made by the Supreme Court relative to the correct path to take with these types of cases will assist other families who face hurdles in educating their special needs child. One can hope that it also triggers all school systems to accommodate children, when appropriate, without the necessity of a lawsuit.

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The author is an Attorney Referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court; however, the views expressed in this column are her own. Her blog site is: http://legalbling.blogspot.com. She can be reached at matyjasz@hotmail.com.
 

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