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US Supreme Court holds that exhaustion of remedies pursuant to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act not necessary when gravamen of lawsuit fails to seek relief for alleged denial of “free appropriate public education.”

April 1, 2017
Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Schools, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 1427 (Feb. 22, 2017)

In Fry, The United States Supreme Court vacated and remanded a decision that found the plaintiff failed to exhaust the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act’s (IDEA) procedures prior to filing a lawsuit alleging violations of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In short, the Court held, “Exhaustion is not necessary when the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee—what the Act calls a ‘free appropriate public education.’”

The minor student suffered from severe cerebral palsy. As a result, her parents obtained a trained service dog, Wonder, to assist her with daily activities. However, when her parents requested permission for Wonder to join the student in kindergarten, the school declined the request. Instead, the school noted that the student’s existing IEP required the use of a human aide, which they believed rendered Wonder superfluous. As a result, a complaint was filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which determined that, even if the school provided the student with a free appropriate public education, the decision to forbid Wonder from assisting the student violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. As a result of this finding, the school permitted Wonder to attend school with the student. However, the student’s parents declined the request and removed the student from the school altogether.

Thereafter, a lawsuit was initiated against the school, asserting that it violated the ADA and Rehabilitation Act by refusing to accommodate the student’s need for a service animal. In response, the school argued that the student failed to exhaust remedies available pursuant to the IDEA. The lower courts agreed with the school and dismissed the lawsuit. In vacating the dismissal of the lawsuit, the Supreme Court determined that the exhaustion requirement is only required when the “relief” sought in the complaint is for a denial of a “free appropriate public education,” reasoning, “[t]hat is the only ‘relief’ the IDEA makes ‘available.’” In determining what “relief” is being sought, the Supreme Court noted that a “court should look to the substance, or gravamen, of the plaintiff’s complaint.” Significantly, the Court outlined a pair of hypothetical questions as a means in determining “whether the gravamen of a complaint against a school concerns the denial of a FAPE, or instead addresses disability-based discrimination.”

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? And second, could an adult at the school—say, an employee or visitor—have pressed essentially the same grievance? When the answer to those questions is yes, a complaint that does not expressly allege the denial of a FAPE is also unlikely to be truly about that subject; after all, in those other situations there is no FAPE obligation and yet the same basic suit could go forward. But when the answer is no, then the complaint probably does concern a FAPE, even if it does not explicitly say so; for the FAPE requirement is all that explains why only a child in the school setting (not an adult in that setting or a child in some other) has a viable claim.

In remanding the case for further proceedings, the Supreme Court noted that nothing in the plaintiffs’ complaint suggests any implicit focus on the adequacy of the student’s education. In particular, the Court noted that the plaintiffs could have filed the same lawsuit against a public library or theater that refused admittance to Wonder and an adult at the school could have asserted the same claims if they were denied an ability to enter with a service dog. The Court did note, however, that it was unclear from the record whether an attempt was made to exhaust remedies pursuant to the IDEA and, if an attempt was made, “[t]he court should decide whether their actions reveal that the gravamen of their complaint is indeed the denial of a FAPE, thus necessitating further exhaustion.”


Case Law Alerts, 2nd Quarter, April 2017

Case Law Alerts is prepared by Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin to provide information on recent developments of interest to our readers. This publication is not intended to provide legal advice for a specific situation or to create an attorney-client relationship. Copyright © 2017 Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, all rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the express written permission of our firm.

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