SCOTUS OKs discrimination lawsuits vs schools, even as administrative proceedings continue

By Chandra Lye | Mar 9, 2017

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a disabled child’s parents in a dispute with the child’s school, saying the family was allowed to sue the school district over its decision to bar her from bringing her service dog to school, even though they had not exhausted their administrative recourse.

And while it could portend more legal headaches and costs for school districts, a lawyer who focuses her practice in part on anti-discrimination law, says school districts shouldn't panic just yet.

The issue arose when the parents, Stacy and Brent Fry, obtained a service dog named Wonder for their 5-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy. However, the Napoleon School District did not allow Wonder at the school because they said they had a staff aide who could fill the same role.

District representatives and the Frys' attorneys reached an agreement to allow Wonder at the school for a trial period. The dog was limited in its activities at the school, according to the blog post, and once the trial was over the school district decided Wonder was no longer allowed at the school.

In 2012, the Frys sued the school district under federal law, seeking compensation for emotional distress their daughter suffered at the school because her service dog was not allowed to join her.

Sarah Moore, partner and attorney at the Fisher Phillips firm in Cleveland, said the case began in a trial court during which the school district argued the parents needed to exhaust administrative remedies before taking the case to court, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA).

The district argued that the lawsuit should be thrown out because the plaintiffs did not do that, she said..

“The trial court agreed with the school district because, within that jurisdiction, it is very clear that you have to exhaust legal remedies, to go through the administrative process under this federal law through the state," Moore said.  "That is the first step before you can go into federal court and file a claim."

The couple lost their appeal at the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati and appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court said the parents were not legally responsible for putting in extra legwork over a service animal dispute before they were allowed to sue the school under federal antidiscrimination law.

She said the Supreme Court sided with the parents because “the administrative remedies that are available do not provide an ability to be compensated  for emotional distress damages.”

In the opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court agreed the family was not expected to exhaust administrative remedies under IDEA before they were entitled to sue. The court said the family’s lawsuit was not based on a denial of education under the IDEA.

Moore warned this may lead to an increase in lawsuits against school districts for similar denials.

“We may see greater litigation being filed in federal courts at the same time that the administrative due process is filed at the schools,” she said.

She said the situation would increase the costs on school districts.

However, Moore said she didn't think it was time for school boards to overreact.

“I don’t think districts should sound alarm bells," she said. "They should continue to work collaboratively with families to try and resolve disputes in a manner that provides the best support for kids.

"If they just remain focused on doing what is right by kids - which is what they do - then the number of these disputes can proactively be eliminated.”

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Fisher & Phillips, LLP U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit U.S. Supreme Court

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