The NCSL Blog


By Lisa Soronen

It is difficult to defeat a service dog in any context, including U.S. Supreme Court litigation.

Ehlena Fry, 12, of Michigan, sits with her service dog Wonder outside the Supreme Court in October, when her case was argued. Photo: Molly Riley, APIn Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools,  the Supreme Court held unanimously that if a student’s complaint against a school seeks relief for a denial of a free appropriate public education it must first be brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), instead of under other statutes that might also be violated.

Napoleon Community Schools prohibited a kindergartener with cerebral palsy from bringing a service dog to school. The district noted the student had a one-on-one human aide who was able to provide the same assistance as the dog.

IDEA requires school districts to develop individualized education programs for students with disabilities, which are intended to provide them with a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE). The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 5 for the Rehabilitation Act prohibit all public entities from discriminating on the basis of disability.

The Frys sued for money damages for emotional distress under the ADA and Section 5. The school district argued the lawsuit first should have been brought under IDEA, which requires parents to go through an administrative process before going to court and does not allow for money damages for emotional distress.

IDEA states that if a lawsuit “seek[s] relief that is also available under the IDEA” it first must be brought under IDEA even if the lawsuit also alleges violations of other statutes.

According to the Court the relief that IDEA makes available is for denial of a FAPE. So, to have to bring a lawsuit under IDEA the crux of the lawsuit must be that FAPE was denied. Courts will determine whether the crux of a complaint is the denial of FAPE by looking at whether the plaintiff could have brought the same claim against a different public entity or whether an adult could have brought the same claim, indicating the claim isn’t educational in nature. If the plaintiffs “previously invoked the IDEA’s formal procedures to handle the dispute” is also relevant.

The court acknowledged that nothing in the Frys’ lawsuit indicated they were claiming their daughter was denied a FAPE. Nevertheless, the court sent the case back to the lower court to determine if the parents originally pursued IDEA’s administrative remedies.

Interestingly, the court explicitly stated it was not deciding whether cases where the plaintiff is claiming a denial of FAPE and pursuing a remedy not available under IDEA—such as money damages for emotional distress—must first exhaust IDEA’s administrative procedures.

This case is a loss for school districts which would prefer to have disputes resolved through the IDEA’s administrative process rather than litigation and avoid paying money damages to students with disabilities. 

Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and is a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog on judicial matters.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.