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IDEA Exhaustion Heads to the Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court has asked the Solicitor General to weigh in on an issue that has divided the federal circuits and district courts, including those located within Pennsylvania.  The issue is whether a plaintiff must first exhaust the procedures under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) before it can file a complaint made solely under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  After the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in on this matter, it was brought to the attention of the Supreme Court on appeal.

In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, the Sixth Circuit held that the exhaustion principles of IDEA apply to all claims where the injuries alleged ultimately amount to a denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE).  In this case, the Fry family filed a lawsuit against their daughter’s school alleging violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.  Their daughter, who suffers from cerebral palsy, was prescribed a service dog to assist her with daily activities.  The school denied the dog access because, as specified in her IEP, it had already assigned the student a human aide to provide one-to-one support.  The family alleged that this refusal amounted to a denial of equal access to school facilities and interfered with their daughter’s ability to form a bond with her service dog.  They sought money damages, a remedy that is unavailable under IDEA, and a declaratory judgment finding that the school violated their daughter’s rights as well as attorney’s fees.

Even though the family had not specifically plead their case as a FAPE violation, the Sixth Circuit ruled that the essence of the complaint amounted to a denial of FAPE and, therefore, needed to be exhausted through IDEA’s administrative hearing procedures.  The family’s argument focused on the fact that the school’s decision denied their daughter a chance to develop a sense of independence at school.  Also, they claimed that the accommodation providing for a human aide was insufficient. The Court ruled that functioning independently outside the classroom is an educational goal that falls squarely under the IDEA.  Furthermore, whether the accommodation was insufficient or if the addition of a service dog was required was a matter best left to the IEP team members to consider.  It pointed out that had IDEA procedures been followed to their conclusion, this would have created an administrative record that would have been beneficial to courts evaluating the merits of the complaint on review.  As such, the Court held that, “at minimum, the exhaustion requirement must apply when the cause of action ‘arises as a result of a denial of a FAPE’—that is, when the legal injury alleged is in essence a violation of IDEA standards.”

The Court also ruled that the fact that the family’s complaint sought primarily money damages, a remedy unavailable under IDEA, they could not circumvent the exhaustion principles. While it appears that the Supreme Court will have the ultimate say on this hotly contested issue, the Sixth Circuit concluded that a plaintiff cannot “evade the exhaustion requirement simply by ‘appending a claim for damages.’” School districts across Pennsylvania are subject to special education complaints that attempt to avoid the exhaustion requirement and assert primarily monetary remedies.  With any hope, the Supreme Court will adhere to the Sixth Circuit’s position and settle this issue once and for all, maintaining the importance of administrative hearings procedures in hearing all IDEA based claims.

Contact our School Law Group to help your district navigate the IDEA requirements and procedures to ensure that you are in compliance with the law.

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