On February 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) issued its Opinion in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, et. al. In a unanimous ruling, SCOTUS reversed the decision of the Sixth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, holding that a plaintiff need not exhaust administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit in federal court if the substance of the plaintiff’s complaint does not involve the denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
In Fry, the family of a young girl with cerebral palsy requested that she be permitted to bring her service dog, Wonder, to her elementary school to assist her with her daily needs. The school, Ezra Eby, denied this request, noting that a human aide was already available to provide support to the child during the school day.
Eventually, the Frys removed the child from Ezra Eby and began to homeschool her. They also filed a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) alleging that the child’s rights under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act were violated when the school excluded the child’s service dog. OCR agreed that the school had discriminated against the child by denying her dog’s services during the school day. In response to OCR’s finding, Ezra Eby agreed to allow the dog to come to school. However, the Frys were concerned that school administrators would resent the child, and they ultimately sent her to a different public school. That school allowed Wonder to attend.
Subsequent to that, the Frys filed a lawsuit in federal court against the local and regional school districts in which Ezra Eby is located alleging that the school districts violated Title II of the ADA and Section § 504 by denying the child equal access to the school and its programs by refusing to offer her the reasonable accommodation of the use of her service animal. The Frys sought declaratory and monetary relief as a result of these alleged violations. They did not assert any claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The district court granted the school districts’ motion to dismiss this lawsuit, holding that 20 USC § 1415(l) required that the Frys first exhaust the administrative procedures set forth under the IDEA. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal, holding that, because the alleged harms to the child were educational in nature, the Frys were required to first exhaust their administrative remedies before proceeding in federal court.
SCOTUS REASONING AND DECISION
SCOTUS granted certiorari to address the scope of the exhaustion requirement of § 1415(l). SCOTUS noted that § 1415(l) requires that plaintiffs exhaust the IDEA’s procedures before filing claims under Title II and Section § 504 if, and only if, the plaintiffs are seeking relief that is also available under the IDEA.
Since the only relief provided under the IDEA relates to FAPE, the Court found that the exhaustion requirement of § 1415(l) is triggered only if the lawsuit seeks relief for the denial of FAPE. Thus, if a lawsuit is seeking relief pertaining to a denial of FAPE, a plaintiff must first exhaust the administrative procedures set forth under the IDEA. Conversely, the Court noted, if a plaintiff seeks relief under statutes other than the IDEA that does not pertain to a denial of FAPE, exhaustion is not required.
Of course, the Court stated, complaints that do not explicitly reference the IDEA or a denial of FAPE may nevertheless implicitly or indirectly be seeking relief for the denial of FAPE, thereby first requiring an exhaustion of administrative procedures. The Court then rhetorically asked, with regard to complaints that do not explicitly seek relief under the IDEA for a denial of FAPE: “How is a court to tell when a plaintiff ‘seeks’ relief for the denial of a FAPE and when she does not?” It noted that this inquiry should involve consideration of the substance of the complaint, not merely the surface, and whether or not the subject matter of the complaint involves educational needs and concerns, thereby making it more likely that an alleged denial of FAPE is at issue.
The Court further offered that, in order to ascertain whether a plaintiff is seeking relief for the denial of FAPE, one should determine the answers to two hypothetical questions: 1) Could the plaintiff have brought the same claim if the alleged conduct occurred at a public facility other than a school and 2) Could an adult at the school have brought the same grievance? If the answers to both of these questions are ‘yes’, the plaintiff at issue is likely not seeking relief for a denial of FAPE. Therefore, it is not necessary that the plaintiff first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures. If the answers to both questions is ‘no’, on the other hand, it is probable that the plaintiff is seeking relief for a denial of FAPE, triggering the exhaustion requirement.
In issuing this Opinion, SCOTUS has clarified the analysis courts must undertake when confronted with a complaint, such as the complaint in Fry, that does not explicitly ask for relief under the IDEA or for a denial of FAPE but that may be indirectly asking for precisely such relief. By applying and answering the two hypothetical questions referenced above, courts, as well as parties and attorneys, can more readily and accurately ascertain whether a plaintiff’s claims require exhaustion under the IDEA, even if, on the face of the complaint, the plaintiff has not referenced the IDEA or FAPE.