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The U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies When Litigants Are Required To Exhaust IDEA Administrative Remedies Prior To Filing Lawsuits

In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 580 U.S. ____ (2017), the United States Supreme Court held that administrative exhaustion “is not necessary when the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the [Individuals With Disabilities Education Act’s (“IDEA”)] core guarantee—what the Act calls a ‘free and appropriate public education.’”

The IDEA is a federal statute that provides federal funds to states in exchange for the commitment to provide a free and appropriate public education, more commonly known in educational parlance as FAPE, to children with certain physical or intellectual disabilities. However, the IDEA is not the only federal statute designed to protect students with disabilities. Both Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“Title II”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”) forbid discrimination based on disability and require reasonable modifications to either (1) avoid such discrimination or (2) accommodate persons with disabilities. Both statutes authorize individuals to seek redress for a violation of their substantive guarantees through legal action.

In contrast, the IDEA provides a formal administrative review process for resolving disputes, which culminates with judicial review in state or federal court. The IDEA also makes it clear that nothing in the IDEA “restrict[s] or limit[s] the rights [or] remedies” conferred on children with disabilities by other federal laws – including Title II and Section 504. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l). However, the IDEA states that if a lawsuit “seek[s] relief that is also available under” the IDEA, the child must first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures before bringing that lawsuit. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l). This interplay between (1) the right of a child to bring a lawsuit under Title II and Section 504 and (2) the IDEA’s administrative exhaustion requirement formed the central issue in this case. In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court sought to clarify under which circumstances a plaintiff, who has viable claims under Title II and Section 504, is required to exhaust his or her remedies under the IDEA before bringing a lawsuit under Title II and/or Section 504.

The U.S. Supreme Court found that the “exhaustion rule hinges on whether a lawsuit seeks relief for the denial of” FAPE under the IDEA. Specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that the exhaustion rule hinges on FAPE because “[t]he only relief that an IDEA officer can give [. . .] is relief for the denial of a FAPE.”

While this conclusion may appear obvious, the U.S. Supreme Court went on to address a major practical issue: “How is a court to tell when a plaintiff seeks relief for the denial of a FAPE and when she does not?” The U.S. Supreme Court addressed this issue by finding that a court must look at the substance of the complaint rather than the labels used in it: “What matters is the crux—or, in legal-speak, the gravamen—of the plaintiff’s complaint.” Particularly, a court must look at “the substance, not surface” of a complaint with a view towards “the diverse means and ends of the statutes covering persons with disabilities.” As the U.S. Supreme Court explained, “[t]he IDEA, of course, protects only children (well, really, adolescents too) and concerns only their schooling. [. . .] By contrast, Title II of the ADA and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act cover people with disabilities of all ages, and do so both inside and outside schools.”

Fortunately for our readers, the U.S. Supreme Court provided a hypothetical test for examining these statutory means and ends: “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 theatre or library? And second, could an adult at the school—say, an employee or visitor—have pressed essentially the same grievance?” If the answers to both questions are, “yes,” then a complaint does not expressly allege the denial of FAPE and administrative exhaustion is not required. The U.S. Supreme Court also suggested that courts should examine the “history of the proceedings.” If a plaintiff previously invoked the IDEA’s formal administrative procedures to handle the dispute “before switching midstream,” it is more likely than not that the gravamen of the claim centers on the IDEA and administrative exhaustion is required.

To read this case, please click here.

Authors: Matthew John Markling and Patrick Vrobel

Note: This blog entry does not constitute – nor does it contain – legal advice. Legal jurisprudence is like the always changing Midwestern weather. As a result, this single blog entry cannot substitute for consultation with a McGown & Markling attorney. If legal advice is needed with respect to a specific factual situation, please feel free to contact a McGown & Markling attorney.

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