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Case Update: A Girl and Her Goldendoodle Head to the U.S. Supreme Court

Last month, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments about a little girl and her goldendoodle service dog named Wonder.  The question was about the options open to 12-year-old Ehlena Fry and her parents when their Michigan school district denied their request to allow Wonder to go to class with Ehlena.

The school district initially refused to allow Wonder to work as a service dog, determining that it would be a distraction in the classroom.  During a 30-day trial run, the school district limited Wonder’s activities by not allowing him to go to recess, lunch, or the bathroom with Ehlena.              

Ehlena has cerebral palsy, which limits her motor skills, but poses no cognitive impairment.  In 2009, the Frys bought Wonder so that Ehlena would not need a human to assist her in certain activities, such as picking up dropped items, opening and closing doors, and helping transfer her to and from the bathroom.

When the trial period ended, the school decided that Wonder would not be allowed back.  As a result, the Frys moved Ehlena to home schooling and ultimately found a school district that welcomed both Ehlena and Wonder.

In December 2012, the Frys filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the school district.

They alleged that the school district’s refusal to allow Wonder to accompany Ehlena to school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which bars any place of public accommodation and state and local governments, from discriminating against people with disabilities.  They asked the court to award them damages for the “social and emotional harms” that the school district’s actions inflicted on Ehlena.

To win their lawsuit the Fyrs only have to show that Ehlena was denied the right, guaranteed to any person with a disability, to be accompanied by her service dog in a public facility. 

While the legal issues in Ehlena’s case surround the Americans with Disabilities Act, which does not apply to many community associations, a reminder to our clients about the rights of individuals and their service animals is always appropriate.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is not applicable to private communities, for the most part; however, it will apply to a community association that opens up the property to non-residents.  For example, if a community association hosts swim lessons open for public enrollment or permits non-residents to use the clubhouse for public events where admission is charged, the association may be deemed as a place of public accommodation.

Service animals are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  These animals are specifically trained to perform a task for a disabled person.  Service animals are not pets.  Usually, these animals help persons with mobility or visual impairments. Examples include helping a blind person get around, detecting when a seizure is about to occur, or assisting a person without the full use of their limbs.

Currently, only trained service dogs can be designated service animals; however, the Americans with Disabilities Act has recently expanded the definition to require businesses to make accommodations for horses that are housebroken.  While service dogs are more common, those persons with disabilities who have allergies to common types of service dogs, or those that require service animals with a longer life span may obtain a miniature horse rather than a dog.  Guide horses generally must have an outdoor, fenced in area.

If your community association allows the common facilities to be opened up to the public, you cannot prohibit service animals from accompanying a disabled person in those facilities.  If you question whether your association would be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, please contact our office.

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