Supreme Court Rules Unanimous for Child’s Right to Use Service Dog as Part of Special Education Accommodations under IDEA and Section 504

Supreme Court Rules for Child’s Right to Use Service Dog
Written by Taher Kameli & Chathan Vemuri

On February 22, 2017, the Supreme Court in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools ruled that a claim involving the right of a disabled child to rely on a service animal in her elementary school did not involve education specifically and therefore did not require exhaustion of administrative remedies under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA) before filing a private lawsuit.[1]


This ruling was of special significance to those combatting discrimination in educational spaces outside of the confines of IDEA. Specifically, the Court made an important distinction between claims involving a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) and claims involving a simple accommodation of disability that could be raised with regards to any public establishment.[2]


In thiss case, Ehlena Fry, a Michigan elementary school student with cerebral palsy, relied on a service dog to help with her daily living functions, under recommendation from the family pediatrician.[3] Her school denied her parents’ request for her to bring the service dog to school as under their Individualized Education Program (IEP) for special education students, they already provided services for students like Ehlena Fry such as human one-on-one assistants and other services and accommodations; a dog would therefore be unneeded.[4] Even when the dog was allowed under a trial period, it was made to sit in the back, rendering it incapable of providing the necessary assistance to Ehlena.[5]


When the trial period ended in continued denial of use of the service animal, the Frys withdrew their child for homeschooling.[6] Eventually filed suit in federal court against the school’s local and regional districts alleging violations of Title II of the ADA and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act but the District Court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss because parents were found not to exhaust their remedies under the IDEA §1415(l), which the Sixth Circuit upheld.[7] They then filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court which was granted and the Supreme Court vacated the Sixth Circuit’s decision.[8]


In an opinion by Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court’s determination of whether Plaintiffs in this case met 20 U.S.C.S. §1451(l)’s exhaustion requirement focused on the crux of their suit; whether they were challenging the Defendants for denying their daughter her right to a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE).[9] Any complaint meant to be resolved under the IDEA’s administrative remedies as per §1451(l) had to focus on whether a school met its obligation to provide children with special needs their right to a FAPE.[10]


As such, Court looked to the “gravamen” or the “essentials” of a complaint to see if it directly seeks relief already available under the IDEA, not whether it could have sought said relief available under the IDEA or even look at whether any appropriate remedies are available under that law or if it used particular required words.[11]


Moreover, looking to both the substance and the history of the Plaintiff’s complaint in this case, the Court rejected the Sixth Circuit’s reasoning that the Frys case had to be dismissed under §1451 of IDEA because the question, as they saw it, was not whether they were suing for their daughter’s right to a FAPE by defending her right to bring in her service dog but rather whether they were fighting for her right to use the dog to handle her disability, which involved but went far beyond her ability to get an FAPE at the school.[12]


In order to meet the test mentioned above to determine whether they were suing for their daughter’s right to a FAPE or for their daughter’s rights under the ADA and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act , a court would have to look at whether their complaint specifically was about their daughter’s ability to function properly in society with her condition by use of the service dog, be it at school or any other public facility under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act, not whether the school met its obligation to give their daughter a FAPE with an adequate IEP.[13]


While the Court noted it could not make this determination about the “gravamen of the Plaintiff’s complaint” conclusively and remanded the case back to the lower courts to resolve this issue[14], this ruling is extremely important in providing an avenue for parents of children with disabilities to more clearly fight discrimination against their children due to their disabilities without having to be foreclosed by schools that seek to forego their obligations to allow particular accommodations by drowning parents with the IDEA’s administrative requirements.[15]


By making a distinction between educational and disability claims, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools limits the application of the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement under §1451(l) by looking at whether the crux or “gravamen” of the suit was the denial of a student’s free appropriate public education, even if it was not phrased explicitly in that way.[16] This allows for a clearer distinction between disability and FAPE cases and makes it easier for parents of disabled children to use the courts to fight disability discrimination.


If you have any questions concerning possible disability discrimination against children involved in special education programs at local schools, please contact the Kameli Law by filling out the form below. Our legal team is committed to providing quality legal services.




[1] Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., 13 S. Ct. 743, 748 (2017).

[2] Amy Howe, Opinion Analysis: Court Outlines Boundaries Between Disabilities and Education Cases, SCOTUSblog, (Feb. 22, 2017, 6:51 PM),

[3] Fry, 13 S. Ct. at 750-1.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 751-2.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 753.

[10] Id. at 754.

[11] Id. at 755.

[12] Id. at 758.

[13] Id.

[14] Amy Howe, Opinion Analysis: Court Outlines Boundaries Between Disabilities and Education Cases, SCOTUSblog, (Feb. 22, 2017, 6:51 PM),

[15] Mark Walsh, Supreme Court Backs Family in Case on Denial of Service Dog in School, Education Week, (Feb. 22, 2017, 11:29 AM),

[16] Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools Defines Difference Between Disability and Education Claims, Constitutional Law Reporter, (Mar. 7, 2017)

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