Decision Issued in Fry on Remand from the U.S. Supreme Court

In 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the landmark special education case Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, holding that exhaustion of the administrative procedures under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (“IDEA”) is only necessary when the substance of a claim under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is a denial of a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”).

The Court remanded the case back to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan to determine whether the complaint, which sought relief for the school district’s refusal to allow E.F.’s service dog to attend school, was actually a claim for the denial of FAPE. The district court found that the complaint did not seek relief for denial of FAPE; instead, the complaint alleged disability-based discrimination.

After the district court’s ruling, both parties filed summary judgment motions. The Frys’ motion sought judgment in favor of their child, E.F., as to her remaining claims under Section 504 and Title II of the ADA and requested a jury trial to determine damages. The district filed its motion to dismiss the case. The court analyzed the pending motions focusing on the analysis under the ADA because Section 504 and Title II of the ADA are similar in purpose and scope, insofar as the analysis of claims under each statute roughly parallels one another.

Through the court’s analysis it determined that the Frys conflated the analysis of their intentional discrimination claim with a failure to accommodate claim. Based on this, the court noted that the Frys actually alleged two intertwined claims in their summary judgment motion: an intentional discrimination claim and a separate failure to accommodate claim.

As to the failure to accommodate claim, the court explained that service animals are permitted on school grounds based on the current Title II regulations, but in this case, the school district denied the parents’ service dog request during the 2008-2009 school year. Therefore, the Frys’ failure to accommodate claim must be analyzed based on prior Title II regulations. During the 2008-2009 school year, because Title II regulations required the district to make reasonable modifications to its policies, practices, and procedures unless doing so would fundamentally alter its programs, the district’s liability turns on whether the requested accommodation was reasonable. Since this determination is highly fact specific, the court determined that it could not issue a ruling as a matter of law on the record that existed. The court determined that this claim and the Frys’ intentional discrimination claim should proceed to a jury trial.

Now it is up to a jury to determine whether E.F. may recover money damages from the district based on its decision not to allow E.F.’s service dog to attend school.

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