Disability at SCOTUS – SCOTUSblog reports on Fry vs Napoleon Community Schools

An important case was argued at SCOTUS this week. Here’s the SCOTUSBLOG report.

The most famous goldendoodle in America was outside the Supreme Court today, accompanied by some of his service dog friends. A Michigan school district’s refusal to allow Wonder, a trained service dog, to go to school with E.F., a student who was born with cerebral palsy and whose mobility is impaired, was the catalyst for the first oral argument of the day, in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools. Stacy and Brent Fry, E.F.’s parents, filed a lawsuit in federal district court, arguing that the school district violated two federal civil rights laws – the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act – when they barred Wonder from E.F.’s school.

As I read the briefs, complaint, and now the analysis, the dispute seems to be less about whether the school was in the wrong (it was!), but whether the family had to go through the IDEA state administrative proceedings before suing in federal court for damages (related to significant emotional hurt caused by the exclusion of Wonder).

The reaction from the justices seems to have been generally in favor of the specifics of EF’s complaint, but concerned about how to rule in such a way as to not allow just anyone to dodge the IDEA process by going straight to federal court.

If the justices’ quandary was how to draw a line that allowed “easy” cases like the Frys’ to go forward in federal court while ensuring that mine-run cases will begin with administrative proceedings, three possible solutions seemed to emerge. Roberts raised, and then Kagan returned to, the first possibility. You are making two arguments, she told Bagenstos, about why exhaustion of administrative remedies is not required in this case. The Frys are asking for damages for emotional distress, which are not available under the IDEA, and they are not alleging that E.F. was denied the “free and appropriate public education” to which she is entitled under the IDEA. In fact, Kagan noted, everyone agrees that E.F. did receive a FAPE. This is an “easy” case, Kagan hypothesized, because both these arguments are true. Roberts then chimed in, telling Bagenstos that a rule that exhaustion is not required if both criteria are met would address many of the potential problems with other cases. Bagenstos maintained that the Frys should prevail if either criterion is met, but he also readily agreed with Roberts that the Frys would prevail even if the court were to require that their case meet both criteria.

Breyer proposed two other possible rules. First, during Martinez’s argument, Breyer put forward what he seemed to regard as a simple rule: If it would be futile for a family to go through state administrative proceedings, then it would not have to. Martinez agreed with Breyer that the court could adopt such a rule. Or, Breyer suggested, courts could look at the gravamen of the complaint. If the heart of the complaint really focuses on the IEP, then a family will have to go through the administrative proceedings unless it would be futile to do so.

Here’s my broad take – these procedural issues make navigating the special education system difficult for the most highly resourced families, and often nearly impossible for people in marginalized contexts. I have had people involved with Chicago Public Schools say to me, anonymously, that the entire edifice is based on people not knowing or demanding their rights, because the system just can’t pay for it. We need to streamline the process, demand better remedies, and ultimately make it a federally funded rather than mandated (with some funding streams, I believe. I am not an expert on education policy as it’s a huge morass).

So generally speaking, I want to make right more visible, processes of complaint more streamlined, and better protections for students put in.

Educators who make arbitrary decisions like banning service dogs must be held accountable professionally and financially (through suing the districts). 

Meanwhile, I was actually in DC for Halloween and am sort of bitter I missed a chance to meet Wonder and his family.

Image Description: Wonder the Goldendoodle on a leash, lying on stone outside SCOTUS.
Wonder’s human appears only in shoes and a shirt below the knee. Photo via Amy Howe/Scotusblog

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