Supreme Court provides guidance on when parents need to exhaust IDEA procedures
Richard L. O’Meara, Partner, Chair Education Law Group, Murray Plumb & Murray
The Supreme Court has provided guidance to parents seeking to vindicate the rights of their children with disabilities. In the case of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (issued February 22, 2017), the Court confirmed that not all cases affecting a student’s experience at school require parents first to exhaust their special education remedies through an administrative hearing prior to filing in court. The decision makes clear that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) “is not the only federal statute protecting [the] interests” of students with disabilities.
The Fry case: a girl and her goldendoodle
The Fry case involved a lawsuit brought by the parents of a young girl with cerebral palsy and mobility issues. Her parents provided her with a service dog—Wonder the goldendoodle—trained to enhance her independence by assisting her with retrieving dropped items, helping her maintain balance when using her walker, opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, taking off her coat, and transferring between her wheelchair and toilets.
The dispute arose when the girl’s elementary school would not allow Wonder to accompany her to kindergarten and, instead, offered her a 1:1 adult aide. While her educational needs theoretically could be met through the adult aide, the failure to permit Wonder to serve as a disability accommodation impeded her independence and access on terms equal to those of her non-disabled peers.
IDEA administrative remedies
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) is the federal law governing special education. While it neither restricts nor limits children’s rights and remedies under other federal laws, it does require parents to exhaust the IDEA’s administrative remedies before going to court whenever they seek “relief that is also available under” the IDEA. In this case, however, the Frys did not first seek “exhaust” relief through an IDEA due process hearing. Instead, they sued for money damages under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, alleging disability-based discrimination due to the school’s failure to allow a reasonable accommodation of their daughter’s disability. As the Court described, “the IDEA guarantees individually tailored education services, while Title II and section 504 promise non-discriminatory access to public institutions,” including schools.
The Frys lost in both of the lower courts because of their failure to exhaust through an IDEA hearing, even though they maintained throughout that their claim had nothing to do with the IDEA or the provision of an appropriate education to their daughter. At the Supreme Court, they earned a reversal of the lower courts’ adverse decisions.
A unanimous Supreme Court opinion
Justice Kagan wrote the unanimous Supreme Court opinion, with a helpful concurrence joined in by Justices Alito and Thomas. It concludes that IDEA “exhaustion is not necessary when the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee—what the Act calls a ‘free appropriate public education,’” or “FAPE.” The decision stresses that exhaustion is not required for suits seeking relief for something other than a denial of FAPE because “that is the only ‘relief’ that the IDEA makes ‘available.’” The Court was particularly concerned that a “school’s conduct toward . . . a child—say some refusal to make an accommodation—might injure her in ways unrelated to a FAPE, which are addressed in statutes other than the IDEA.”
Justice Kagan’s opinion instructs lower courts to review the substance of parents’ complaints, not the “labels” used by the complaint’s drafter, because “another federal law (like the ADA or Rehabilitation Act) might require the accommodation for reasons “unrelated to a FAPE.” The decision states that parents, as the plaintiffs in such law suits, are the “masters of the claim” and can fashion it in whatever way they prefer. A court, therefore, must examine whether “a plaintiff’s complaint—the principal instrument by which she describes her case—seeks relief for the denial of an appropriate education.” If “the remedy sought is not for the denial of a FAPE, then exhaustion of the IDEA’s procedures is not required. After all, the plaintiff could not get any relief from those procedures.”
Whether to bring a claim straight to court, or first to an IDEA hearing officer, requires careful legal analysis in view of the broad principles set forth in the Supreme Court’s decision. The civil rights team at Murray, Plumb & Murray is ready, willing, and able to analyze potential cases and advise parents on the proper route for litigation designed to vindicate the rights of their children with disabilities at school.