Supreme Court Opinion Released: Fry, IDEA, FAPE and Administrative Remedies

chris-mcintire-photoA school district refuses to allow the service dog of a student with disabilities into the classroom because the student was assigned a one-on-one instructional aide by the school district, rendering the service dog superfluous. The parents remove their child from the school district and ultimately sue the school district and the school’s principal for violations of Title II of the American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504). The parents did not sue the defendants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), nor did they allege in their lawsuit their child was denied a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the IDEA. The question remains: Do the parents have to satisfy the administrative requirements of IDEA, even though they are not alleging an IDEA violation?

In this case, the Supreme Court said yes. On February 22, 2017, the Supreme Court published its ruling in Fry et vir, as Next Friends of Minor E.F. v. Napoleon Community Schools et al Fry 580 U.S. __ (2017), in which the court sought to clear up confusion about how the IDEA, ADA, and Section 504 interact. Five justices signed off on the majority opinion, with Justices Alito and Thomas writing a separate concurrence.

The court’s opinion dealt with the confusion that occurs when a violation of a disability right is alleged in the educational setting.  In addition to the IDEA, in 1986 Congress passed the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act, 20 U.S.C. §1415(l), establishing a “carefully defined exhaustion provision” indicating that a person seeking relief under the ADA, Section 504 or similar laws available under the IDEA must first exhaust IDEA’s administrative remedies. The issue in Fry was when does §1415(l) actually come into play. Fry helps clear up when the IDEA administrative remedies must be satisfied.

First, where the gravamen of the lawsuit does not involve a denial of a FAPE under the IDEA, there is no requirement to satisfy the IDEA’s administrative requirements. If the lawsuit alleges the student was denied a FAPE, then IDEA’s administrative requirements apply, even if the lawsuit is brought under the ADA or Section 504 – and does not cite an IDEA violation.

The court noted that there is some overlap between the statutes.  It is important to look at the central issue of the case, and the nature of relief being sought. The court offers a suggested diagnostic test in the form of two hypothetical questions to determine whether the IDEA and FAPE are at play. First, could the plaintiff have brought the same claim against another public facility that was not a school? Second, could an adult at the school have brought essentially the same claim? If the answer is yes to these questions, it is unlikely the complaint involves a claim under the IDEA.

In addition, the court notes that prior actions by the plaintiff should be considered. If the IDEA administrative remedies were pursued earlier in the process, those efforts may be, in the court’s words, “strong evidence that the substance of the plaintiff’s claim concerns a denial of FAPE, even if the complaint never explicitly uses that term.” Fry at Page 3 ¶1(b).

The partial concurrence by Justices Alito and Thomas gives an insight into how plaintiffs may attempt to counter the holding in Fry. Justices Alito and Thomas disagree with the majority’s suggested diagnostic test. The hypothetical questions are based on a claim that there may be some overlap between the IDEA, ADA, and Section 504. Justices Alito and Thomas do not see any overlap, therefore there is no need for the diagnostic test, and, accordingly, plaintiffs may seek to challenge any associated analysis. Secondly, Justices Alito and Thomas note parents may begin the investigation process thinking they should pursue an IDEA cause of action, only to learn they are going down the wrong path towards relief or decide they want a different form of relief, something the IDEA does not provide.

Justices Alito and Thomas’ concern about using pre-litigation efforts to establish whether a case’s core issues involve a FAPE violation under the IDEA is reasonable. There does, however, appear to be interconnections between the IDEA, ADA, and Section 504 from the way the term “disability” is defined to the way the laws interact. For example, Section 504 addresses the concept of FAPE, which the IDEA and the 1986 Handicapped Children’s Protection Act build upon.

No solution is perfect, but the Fry decision does give defense attorneys a stronger hand when faced with education-related lawsuits that try to avoid the administrative requirements outlined under the IDEA.

Christopher A. McIntire is an attorney in our Riverside, CA office where he focuses his practice on public entity defense, employment law, premise liability and mass tort defense. He may be reached at (951) 276-4420 or cmcintire@cmda-law.com.