The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) recently decided the case of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, which has important implications for families of children with disabilities and whether they have a duty to exhaust Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) administrative proceedings before pursuing a claim under other laws that protect individuals with disabilities such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504).
This case involved a young girl with a severe form of cerebral palsy who required the assistance of a service dog to assist her with various daily life activities. The school district refused to allow the girl to bring her service dog to school because it believed that the 1:1 aid the district had recommended on her IEP obviated the need for a service dog. The Frys believed that the school district had violated their daughter's rights under the ADA and Section 504, and they filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking declaratory relief and monetary damages for emotional distress under those statutes. They did not include IDEA claims in their federal lawsuit.
Both the federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit held that the Frys had an obligation to pursue their claims through the IDEA administrative process before filing their ADA and Section 504 claims in federal court. The 6th Circuit's reasoning was that a plaintiff must exhaust the IDEA's administrative procedures whenever a plaintiff's alleged harms are educational in nature. That language sounds pretty broad...
In light of the above, a central question before SCOTUS on appeal was, When must a plaintiff exhaust the IDEA's administrative proceedings before bringing claims under other statutes?
From our law firm's perspective and for others who practice in this field, the Court's consideration of this issue is very welcomed. Requiring parents who are not challenging FAPE and cannot obtain the remedies they are seeking under the IDEA to exhaust their IDEA remedies before proceeding to federal court is a waste of time and resources. Additionally, there has been a significant amount of uncertainty relating to what claims can or cannot be heard in IDEA administrative proceedings, how the pleading of non-IDEA claims affects the parties' respective burdens of proof, and how non-IDEA claims should be pled or handled in IDEA proceedings in order to preserve one's rights under the ADA and Section 504 for future litigation in federal court. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has chimed in.
SCOTUS held that exhaustion of the IDEA's administrative procedures is unnecessary where the gravamen of the plaintiff's suit is something other than the denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE), the core right under the IDEA.
So how do you determine whether or not the core issue in a lawsuit is a denial of FAPE? First, pursuant to the Supreme Court's ruling in Fry, courts will need to look carefully at the substance of a party's legal papers to determine what the case is about. A party, for example, would not be able to escape the exhaustion rule simply by omitting the term "IDEA" from its legal papers (a technique referred to as "artful pleading"). But if, for instance, a plaintiff is seeking something other than relief for the denial of a FAPE, such as damages as a result of having been denied equal access to a public facility or having been otherwise discriminated against, then the exhaustion rule may not apply. Courts will also look at the history of the proceedings to inform their determination. That is, if a party has pursued administrative procedures under the IDEA in the past, that could be an indication that the substance of the party's claims relates to the IDEA.
It is interesting to note that the Court specifically did not answer the question of whether exhaustion is required when the plaintiff complains of the denial of a FAPE but the specific remedy requested is not one that an IDEA hearing officer may award.
Justice Kagan wrote the Court's opinion, 5 other justices joined in, and 2 justices concurred in part; there were no dissenters. SCOTUS remanded the case to the 6th Circuit for further consideration as to whether the gravamen of the Frys' complaint relates to a denial of FAPE, and whether the Frys previously availed themselves of the IDEA's administrative procedures.