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Today the Supreme Court issued its decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, addressing the question of how far the “exhaustion requirement” under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (“IDEA”) reaches. Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., No. 15-497, 2017 WL 685533 (Feb. 22, 2017).

The petitioners in this case, the Frys and their child E.F., brought a lawsuit for alleged violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The Frys allege that their child suffered social and emotional harm due to the school district’s refusal to allow E.F., who has a severe form of cerebral palsy, to bring a service dog to school. Their claims were dismissed by the lower courts for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, as required by IDEA.

Under IDEA, plaintiffs are required to exhaust their state administrative remedies, such as a due process complaint, before filing suit for relief that is also available under IDEA. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned that the Frys were bringing a claim that was educational in nature and, therefore, it needed to be addressed through IDEA’s administrative process first.  The Supreme Court rejected such an analysis of IDEA’s exhaustion requirement and sent this case back to the Sixth Circuit for review in light of the Supreme Court’s new IDEA exhaustion analysis, described below.

The Court held that IDEA only provides relief for a denial of a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”). Consequently, any plaintiff who wishes to bring a lawsuit in court for a denial of FAPE, even if such claims could also constitute a violation of Section 504 or the ADA, must first exhaust their administrative remedies (e.g., due process proceedings) under IDEA. The Court held that the actual substance of a plaintiff’s complaint, and not the wording or language of the complaint, is determinative of the actual claims brought.

When considering the question of whether or not the substance of a plaintiff’s lawsuit seeks relief for a denial of FAPE, the Supreme Court instructed courts to consider two hypothetical questions. First, could a student bring the same claim outside of the school environment, for example in a library? Second, could an adult, such as an employee or other visitor, have brought the same claim against the school district? If the answer to both questions is no, then the claim is most likely based on a denial of FAPE.

For example, imagine a plaintiff filed a lawsuit based on a school’s failure to provide a student remedial math tutoring. A student could not bring such a claim against a library and an adult could not bring such a claim against a school district. Since the answer to both questions is no, the true nature of the claim is a denial of FAPE. Therefore, such a claim must be exhausted under IDEA before the plaintiff could bring a lawsuit in court. The Court also noted that the history between the school district and the family is an important consideration. A family’s decision to file an IDEA due process complaint only to later withdraw it could be an indication that the basis of the family’s claim is truly a denial of FAPE.

This decision increases the risks school districts face in suits brought on behalf of students with disabilities. Contact Michelle Todd and Pam Simaga with all of your special education-based lawsuits.