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School Districts Get Fry’d

On its face, if one were to read the eight-justice decision issued by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on February 22, 2017 in Fry v. Napoleon Community School, one might think that the issue pertained to the right of a student to have a service dog in school.  However, the case had little to do with service animals but instead clarified a much-debated section of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) as it pertains to claims parents bring against school districts that may not be directly related to the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The IDEA section at issue, § 1415(l), called “the exhaustion rule,” has previously been interpreted by most United States Circuit Courts as requiring parents to exhaust their administrative remedies (i.e. file an administrative due process complaint with the Office of Dispute Resolution first) when parents have a claim against a school district with “some articulable connection to the education of a child with a disability.”  Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., No. 15-497, 2017 WL 685533, p.10 (U.S. Feb. 22, 2017).  Filing for due process has so far been a requirement for “exhaustion” even when parents have a federal claim, such as Title II and/or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act claim(s), that may be more pertinent to alleged discrimination or harassment than the provision of FAPE.  Such a claim was precisely the one the Frys made an issue here: they alleged their complaint pertained only to disability-based discrimination, without making any reference to the adequacy of the special education services their daughter’s school provided.

The SCOTUS justices agreed with both parties: “The only relief that an IDEA officer can give – hence the thing a plaintiff must seek in order to trigger § 1415(l)’s exhaustion rule – is relief for the denial of a FAPE.” Fry, p.10.  Precisely because the only remedies a hearing officer can order are those found in the IDEA, such as compensatory education or the order for an independent education evaluation (IEE) to be conducted, “the SCOTUS Eight” remanded the case back to United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (Sixth Circuit) to apply the facts and determine whether – in light of the SCOTUS decision – the Frys are required to file a due process complaint prior to filing in federal court.  What must the Sixth Circuit consider?  SCOTUS laid out these two (2) questions:

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?  Second, could an adult at the school have pressed essentially the same grievance?” Fry, p. 3. [Emphasis added].

Addressing the concern that parents might draft a complaint with the use (or non-use) of various terms to avoid the “exhaustion” requirement and head right to federal court, the SCOTUS decision includes, “The inquiry… does not ride on whether a complaint includes the precise words… ‘FAPE’ or ‘IEP.’…A complaint brought under Title II and § 504 might instead seek relief for simple discrimination, irrespective of the IDEA’s FAPE obligation.” Id. pp.14-15.

Thus, the newest authority on parents’ requirement to file a due process complaint prior to filing a claim in federal court is twofold: One, a suit must seek relief for the denial of a FAPE, because that is the only “relief” the IDEA makes “available.”  Two, in determining whether a suit indeed “seeks” relief for such a denial, a court should look to the substance, crux, or gravamen of the plaintiff’s complaint.

SCOTUS left “for another day” any more detailed analysis about a “FAPE-denial complaint” that seeks monetary damages, such as for emotional distress that a hearing officer cannot order.  How the Sixth Circuit applies the facts of Fry to the February 22 SCOTUS decision may shed light on how to proceed with parents’ claims against schools based on various federal rights of students.  If you have any questions about the details of this decision and/or how it may affect a matter in your district, please contact Stock and Leader’s School Law Group for more information.

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