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U.S. Supreme Court: Exhaustion of administrative remedies under the IDEA not required for disability discrimination claim if claim does not involve denial of FAPE

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees students with disabilities access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) and establishes a formal administrative framework within which disputes concerning the denial of FAPE are addressed. In addition, other federal statutes, such as the Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, protect individuals with disabilities, and may also be applicable to children in a school setting. Under current law, a plaintiff bringing a disability discrimination claim under these other federal discrimination statutes which seeks relief also available under the IDEA, is required to exhaust the IDEA’s administrative process before bringing suit.  However, in a recently released opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court has clarified when exhaustion under the IDEA may not be required.

In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools[1], the plaintiff, a student with cerebral palsy, sought permission from the district to bring her service dog to school. The district denied her request claiming that plaintiff was already provided a human aide as part of her Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”).  After transferring to a service dog friendly school, plaintiff filed suit against the district and the principal alleging discrimination under the ADA and § 504.   The District Court dismissed the suit for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, holding exhaustion under the IDEA was required because the alleged harms were “educational” in nature.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the Court, discussed the interaction of these statues:  “In short, the IDEA guarantees individually tailored educational services for children with disabilities, while Title II (of the ADA) and § 504 promise nondiscriminatory access to public institutions.  That is not to deny some overlap in coverage: The same conduct might violate all three statutes – which is why, as in Smith, a plaintiff might seek relief for the denial of a FAPE under Title II and § 504 as well as the IDEA. But still, the statutory differences just discussed mean that a complaint brought under Title II and § 504 might instead seek relief for simple discrimination, irrespective of the IDEA’s FAPE obligation.”

The Court set forth a simple test for making this determination:  Could the same claim have been brought by an adult or if it had occurred at a public facility outside of a school setting? If so, then the claim does not go to the FAPE requirement; if, on the other hand, the answer to those questions is in the negative, the claim probably involves FAPE and the IDEA administrative process must be exhausted.

The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals for an appropriate analysis of whether the plaintiff’s claim alleges a denial of FAPE – in which case dismissal for failure to exhaust administrative remedies would be proper – or does not involve this core IDEA principle, in which case exhaustion is not required for plaintiff to proceed with her disability discrimination suit.

What’s the take away?

Exhaustion of administrative remedies under IDEA is not a necessary prerequisite to filing a disability discrimination suit where the claimed discrimination does not go to the core of the IDEA’s requirement to provide FAPE.  Further, courts in determining whether exhaustion is required, will have to engage in an analysis of whether the provision of a free appropriate public education is central to the alleged discriminatory act and not presume exhaustion under the IDEA is required simply because the discrimination claim involves a student with a disability. Will school districts see an increase in disability discrimination cases under Title II and § 504?  This will be an interesting one to follow…

[1] 580 U.S. _____ (2017)