One of the things lawyers have to do is compare and contrast facts and analysis from one court’s ruling and then layer the argument over their client’s circumstances. So, while the case discussed here isn’t directly allergy related, the decision is important for those who are bringing service dogs, such as allergen alert dogs, into schools.
Monica Alboniga, mother of A.M. (children are referred to by initials), sued the school board in Broward County, Florida relating to A.M.’s right to have a service dog at school. Procedurally, both sides filed “Motions for Summary Judgment,” which are at their core requests for the court to decide a case without trial. Both Ms. Alboniga and the School Board were trying to argue the case could be decided without trial and Ms. Alboniga prevailed on behalf of her son.
You can download the full opinion in Alboniga v. School Board of Broward County Florida in pdf form here – it has some great discussion and case law if you’re doing research of your own but below we’ll discuss some of the main points. As a side note, by the time the case made it to the current decision, A.M. was permitted to have his service dog at school. It takes persistence and courage to continue a case even though others may want to tell you that the harm isn’t continuing. Because of this family’s persistence and the advocacy of a terrific disability rights lawyer, we now have a ruling that can be instructive to other families, and other school districts.
Alboniga’s son, A.M., has multiple disabilities that include “cerebral palsy, spastic quadreparesis, and a seizure disorder; is non-verbal and confined to a wheelchair; and needs care and support for all aspects of daily living and education.” Order on Cross Motions for Summary Judgment, Alboniga v. School Board of Broward County Florida at 2. A dog named Stevie was trained to alert to impending seizures and assist A.M. if a seizure was in progress by positioning himself on the wheelchair and laying across A.M.’s lap as well as alerting others to the circumstances. Stevie’s vest held important supplies and he was meant to go everywhere with A.M.
The school applied its policies for service dogs which required Alboniga (A.M.’s mother) to provided proof of vaccinations in excess of what is required under state law and also required her to obtain and provide proof of insurance for Stevie to protect the school. The school also required someone other than A.M. to serve as the “handler” for Stevie when normally Stevie was just tethered to A.M.’s wheelchair. Alboniga refused to obtain the additional vaccinations and also refused to provide insurance to indemnify the school.
The school permitted A.M. to start kindergarten with Stevie in August 2013 even though its policies required the additional vaccinations and proof of insurance so long as Alboniga acted as the “handler” for Stevie. In November, the school decided to provide an employee to serve as a handler in contravention to its own policies. The person selected was the school custodian. The custodian was to take Stevie outside to urinate, and keep others away from the dog while he worked. Stevie was reported to be neat and responsive and to not eat or drink while working with A.M. at the school.
Alboniga filed a complaint in federal court alleging that the school’s policies discriminated against her son in violation of the ADA and section 504. Specifically, Alboniga alleged that the school violated these federal laws by failing to accommodate A.M.’s disability. Notably, Alboniga did not argue that her son was denied a free and appropriate education or claim that A.M.’s IEP was in any way deficient.
The federal court handed down a decisive and important win to Alboniga that will provide support to other families fighting for their child’s right to attend school with a service animal.
The court rejected the school’s argument that Alboniga could not come directly to court with her complaints. Complaints about special education and related services must go through administrative procedures before being hashed out in court. However, Alboniga was not challenging her child’s educational services but was instead challenging policies that restricted access of a service dog in violation of the federal law.
The court also rejected the school’s claims that the case was moot. A case is moot when there is nothing for the court to fix. The school had not enforced its policies requiring additional vaccinations, insurance, and provision of a handler against Alboniga but those policies remained otherwise in effect. Therefore, the court reasoned that the school could voluntarily reverse its position and apply those restrictive policies to impede access for the A.M. And Stevie at any time. Particularly in the context of litigation, it is not unusual for a defendant to voluntarily stop the conduct that is being complained of, only to return to the complained of conduct after a lawsuit ends. For this reason, the court concluded that Alboniga’s claims were not moot.
Turning to the policies in dispute, the court held that the school’s service dog policies violated the ADA and section 504. Requiring a family to pay for vaccinations for a service dog in excess of the vaccinations required under state law, amounted to a surcharge in violation of federal disability law. Likewise, requiring a parent to insure a service dog and indemnify the school, placed a financial burden on parents of a disabled child that is not placed on parents of non-disabled children. Therefore, requiring proof of insurance and indemnification was unlawful conduct.
In permitting A.M. to act as Stevie’s handler and requiring the school to accompany A.M. And Stevie outside when Stevie needs to urinate, the court noted, “…in the vast majority of cases, an accommodation requested by a disabled person of a public entity to permit the use of a service animal will be considered reasonable.”
The court held that while it may have been true that the school provided trained staff to perform the functions that Stevie performed, requiring A.M. to rely on those staff instead of relying on his service dog is “akin to allowing a public entity to dictate the type of services a disabled person needs in contravention of that person’s own decisions regarding his own life and care.” The court compared it to forcing a person who is blind to use a cane rather than their service dog.
The decision in Alboniga v. School Board of Broward County Florida is a big win that offers hope and support for those seeking to bring service dogs into educational settings and places kids with disabilities, and those who love them, in the drivers seat when determining how a disability will be accommodated.
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