WASHINGTON (AP) — A fluffy white goldendoodle named Wonder waited patiently outside the Supreme Court Monday while the justices inside debated the legal rights of disabled children who want to bring their service dogs to school.
The court was considering the case of Ehlena Fry, a 12-year-old Michigan girl with cerebral palsy who was barred from bringing Wonder to class when she started kindergarten in 2009.
Ehlena's family had Wonder specially trained to help open doors, pick up items and give Ehlena a measure of independence. But school officials insisted an adult aide could provide all the help she needed.
The justices were not deciding whether the school district was right or wrong, but a more arcane question: Could the Frys go directly to court to sue the school district, or did they first have to go through administrative proceedings that could take much longer?
After an hour of arguments, it seemed most of the justices were sympathetic to Fry. Lower courts had ruled against her.
The issue is important to disability groups seeking to remove hurdles that can discourage people from pursuing their legal rights. School officials say, however, that administrative remedies are an easier and cheaper way to resolve educational disputes.
Chief Justice John Roberts said it "would be kind of a charade" to force the family through administrative proceedings if they can't ultimately get the relief they want. He noted that the Frys are seeking money damages for the emotional harm Ehlena suffered, not trying to work out a compromise with school officials.
Justice Stephen Breyer said he was concerned about gutting the less formal administrative process prescribed by Congress, but seemed to agree that allowing the lawsuit made sense if exhausting administrative remedies "would be futile."
The dispute began when Fry's family sought to use the service dog when Ehlena started kindergarten and was suffering from severe mobility problems.
Her school district 75 miles southwest of Detroit initially refused to allow Wonder at school and insisted an adult aide could perform the needed tasks.
Officials later relented a bit, but placed so many restrictions on the dog that Ehlena's parents decided to home-school her. She later transferred to another public school district that welcomed Wonder.
The school district says the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allows it to bar the dog in favor of having a teacher's aide help Ehlena. That law requires the family to first go through administrative proceedings to contest school decisions.
But the family says it has the right to sue for damages under a different law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, because the district refused to accommodate Wonder over a two-and-a-half year period.
Samuel Bagenstos, Fry's attorney, said the time-consuming administrative process the school is demanding "can't give them the relief they are seeking."
He said emotional damages included her humiliation at one point in having to go to the school bathroom with four adults watching instead of simply going alone with Wonder to help.
Representing the school district, lawyer Neal Katyal said the family was trying to make an "end run" around a process that Congress put in place to encourage parents and educators to informally resolve disputes.
"I understand that there is awkwardness here, but that's an awkwardness of the statute Congress laid out," Katyal said.
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said she was "horribly confused" by Katyal's position because the family could no longer get anything by going through the administrative process, since Ehlena is no longer at the school.
Fry's mobility and independence has improved since she was younger and she now attends school without Wonder. The girl and her family were at the court to watch the arguments, but Wonder waited outside the courthouse since he no longer works as a service dog.
A ruling in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 15-497, is expected by June.