Kevin Golembiewski, Berney & Sang Kevin Golembiewski, Berney & Sang

When a child with disabilities needs an accommodation to access school, her parents can request it. If the accommodation is reasonable, federal and state civil rights laws require the school to provide it. Over the years, countless parents have asked their child’s school to accommodate their child by allowing her to bring her service animal to school. And countless times schools have denied the request as unreasonable. A debate raged about the reasonableness of service-animal requests. No longer, though.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Berardelli v. Allied Services Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine cemented a child’s right to attend school with her service animal, concluding that service-animal requests are reasonable absent unique circumstances.

In Berardelli, a private school prohibited M.B., a student with epilepsy, from bringing her service dog to school. M.B. relies on her dog, Buddy, to anticipate her seizures, alert adults to them, and comfort her during and after them.

When M.B. was in third grade, her parents asked the private school to accommodate her by allowing Buddy to attend school with her. The school denied the request, stating that Buddy would be a distraction. Without Buddy, M.B. could not attend school when she was experiencing severe seizures. As a result, she missed several weeks of school in third and fourth grade and fell behind academically.

In fifth grade, M.B. suffered seizures more frequently, so her parents again asked the school to accommodate her. It said no, this time explaining that another student was allergic to dogs. But after a few weeks, the school told M.B.’s parents that Buddy could attend school with her if he wore a shirt that decreases allergens. This requirement proved ill advised. The shirt caused Buddy to overheat, undermining his ability to monitor M.B.’s seizures. Days after the school imposed the requirement, M.B. had a seizure, Buddy failed to intervene, and M.B. had to spend the day recovering.

After the seizure, M.B.’s parents transferred her to a public school. The school immediately accommodated her.

M.B.’s parents sued the private school in federal court under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 is a federal civil rights law that protects persons with disabilities from discrimination. The parents alleged that the school discriminated against M.B. by denying her a reasonable accommodation (access to Buddy at school).

At trial, the parents asked the court to instruct the jury that their request to have Buddy attend school with M.B. was per se reasonable. According to the parents, the standard for whether an accommodation is reasonable is the same under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504, and the ADA has regulations stating that service-animal requests are per se reasonable. The court, however, refused to provide the instruction, concluding that the standards for reasonableness under the ADA and Section 504 are different. Instead, the court told the jury that the parents had to prove that their request to have Buddy attend school with M.B. was reasonable.

The jury entered a verdict against the parents, who appealed to the Third Circuit arguing that the trial court’s jury instructions were erroneous. The Third Circuit agreed. And it not only vacated the jury verdict but also suggested that the parents are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

The Third Circuit first held that, contrary to the trial court’s conclusion, the ADA and Section 504 have the same standards for reasonableness. Therefore, the ADA’s service-animal regulations apply to Section 504.

The Third Circuit then interpreted the regulations. It concluded that, under them, a service-animal request is per se reasonable, just as the parents argued before the trial court. And the presumption of reasonableness, according to the circuit court, is strong. Only in three “limited circumstances” is a request unreasonable: if the presence of the service animal would “fundamentally alter” the school’s program, the animal poses a “direct threat,” or the animal is “out of control” or “not housebroken.”

Finally, the Third Circuit turned to the facts of the parent’s case. It applied the ADA’s service-animal regulations and held that the trial court’s jury instructions were improper. The trial court erred by telling the jury that the parents had to prove that their request for Buddy to attend school with M.B. was reasonable. The private school invoked none of the limited circumstances that render a service-animal request unreasonable, so the parent’s request was reasonable as a matter of law.

Appeals courts usually remand for a new trial after finding a jury-instruction error, but the Third Circuit went a step further. It ordered the trial court on remand to “determine whether there is any remaining genuine issue of material fact concerning the [private school’s] liability or whether, in view of [the circuit court's reasonableness] holding … , trial should be limited to the matter of damages.”

That is a powerful order. It underscores that schools don’t have much leeway to deny a service-animal request. If the child needs the service animal and there are no extenuating circumstances, the law requires the school to grant the request. There are no factual issues to consider.

Berardelli thus all but resolves the debate over whether service-animal requests are reasonable. Holding that the requests are reasonable absent a few unique circumstances, the decision solidifies a child’s right to bring her service animal to school.

 

Kevin Golembiewski is an associate with Berney & Sang. He focuses his practice on appeals, education law and employment law. Contact him at  kagolembiewski@berneylaw.com.