On February 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, et al., holding that the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the “IDEA”) only applies when the essence of a plaintiff’s complaint seeks relief for a denial of a free appropriate public education, or FAPE.
In Fry, school officials denied a child with cerebral palsy from bringing her service dog, Wonder, to kindergarten with her, reasoning that human aides provided under the child’s Individualized Education Plan would render the service dog’s assistance superfluous. The family brought suit in federal court against local and regional school districts and a principal, alleging violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and seeking monetary relief. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the suit, reasoning that the family failed to exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures found in 20 U.S.C. §1415(l). The Circuit Court held that §1415(l) applied wherever a plaintiff alleges harms that are generally educational in nature.
In a unanimous decision, the Court vacated and remanded the Sixth Circuit’s decision for further proceedings, finding the Sixth Circuit’s analysis to be overly broad. In an opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, the Court examined § 1415(l) and established that exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative procedures is required when a parent seeks relief that is “available” under the IDEA. As a result, a plaintiff’s complaint “must seek relief for the denial of a FAPE, because that is the only ‘relief’ the IDEA makes available.” However, the Court warned lower courts to look beyond a plaintiff’s “artful pleading” and review the substance of the complaint to establish that the gravamen, or crux, of the plaintiff’s claims relate to the denial of FAPE before requiring exhaustion of administrative remedies. To that end, the Court provided “clues” for lower court to consider.
First, the Court provided two hypothetical questions: (a) could the same claim be brought against a public entity other than a school, like a public theater or library; and (b) could the same claim be brought by an adult? The Court explained that if the answer to these questions is “yes,” then the complaint likely does not concern a child’s receipt of FAPE. Additionally, the Court stated that lower courts should consider the history of the proceedings to see if the plaintiff previously utilized the IDEA’s procedures to address disputes. Justice Alito, in his concurring opinion, raised a concern that these “clues” are only helpful where there is no overlap between the IDEA and other statutes like Title II and Section 504. However, the majority opinion maintained that the clues are intended to help pinpoint complaints that “instead seek relief for simple discrimination, irrespective of the IDEA’s FAPE obligation.”
Accordingly, given this new standard, the Court directed the Sixth Circuit to consider whether the family was seeking relief for a denial of FAPE when they brought their claim against the school districts.
Another special education case before the Supreme Court, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. RE-1, which will address “the precise content of the FAPE standard,” should be decided later this year.