Exhaustion of IDEA administrative procedures
Petitioner E.F., a student with cerebral palsy, had a service dog recommended by her pediatrician to help her with daily life activities. When E.F. was in kindergarten, her parents requested that the service dog accompany E.F. to school. The School District denied this request on the basis that the human aide assigned to E.F. through her Individualized Education Program (IEP) was able to address E.F.’s needs, rendering the service dog unnecessary. E.F.’s parents began homeschooling E.F. and filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), claiming that the exclusion of E.F.’s service animal was a violation of her rights under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504). After OCR found in favor of E.F., the school invited E.F. to return to school with the service dog. Parents opted to enroll E.F. in another school district and then filed suit in federal court against the local and regional school district and principal (School Districts), alleging they violated the ADA and Section 504 by denying E.F. equal access to the school and its programs, refusing to reasonably accommodate E.F.’s use of a service dog, and discriminating against E.F., seeking declaratory and monetary relief. The District Court granted the School Districts’ motion to dismiss the suit, holding that §1414(l) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) required E.F. to first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures. The Sixth Circuit affirmed.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-0 ruling, held that exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative procedures is unnecessary when the essence of the complaint is something other than the denial of IDEA’s core guarantee of a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE). Because the only relief provided through IDEA’s administrative procedures is relief for the denial of FAPE, this must be the substance of the plaintiff’s complaint for IDEA’s administrative procedures to apply. If a suit is brought under a different statute, such as the ADA or Section 504, and the relief sought is not for the denial of a FAPE, exhaustion of the IDEA’s procedures is not required.
The Court stated that courts must look at the substance of a claim to determine if a plaintiff is seeking relief for the denial of FAPE. The Court provided two questions to help determine whether the substance of the claim is denial of FAPE. First, “Could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school—say, a public theater or library?” Second, “Could an adult at the school—say an employee or visitor—have pressed essentially the same grievance?” If the answer to either question is yes, is it not likely that the complaint is about FAPE. If the answer to both questions is no, however, it is likely that the complaint does concern FAPE. The Court also suggested another clue that the case is about a denial of FAPE can be ascertained by looking at the history of the proceedings. If the plaintiff initially sought relief through IDEA’s administrative remedies, this may suggest the substance of the claim is a denial of FAPE.
The Court has remanded the case back to the Sixth Circuit to determine whether the Frys utilized the IDEA’s dispute resolution process prior to filing a federal suit. If so, the Sixth Circuit needs to determine whether the Frys’ actions indicate that the substance of their complaint is related to a denial of FAPE, thus requiring further exhaustion of IDEA’s administrative procedures.
This decision means that a plaintiff can bring a suit under antidiscrimination statutes such as the ADA or Section 504, without first exhausting IDEA’s administrative procedures if the gravamen of the complaint is not relief sought for the denial of FAPE.
Cassandra Black, IASB Law Clerk