On February 22, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion in Fry ex rel. E.F. v. Napoleon Community SchoolsFry addresses the circumstances in which parents must exhaust the administrative remedies found in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), when their lawsuit purports to assert claims only under other federal discrimination statutes—namely, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  The Court held, unanimously, that parents must exhaust IDEA’s administrative procedures only when the “substance, or gravamen, of the plaintiff’s complaint” seeks relief for the denial of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Children with disabilities are educated pursuant to “individualized education programs” (IEPs), which a team of school officials, educators, and parents develop to cater educational services to the specific needs of the child.  The IDEA guarantees each child the right to a FAPE, which as the Court described, “comprises ‘special education services and related services’—both ‘instruction’ tailored to meet a child’s ‘unique needs’ and sufficient ‘supportive’ services to permit the child to benefit from that instruction.”  Op. at 2 (quoting 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401(9), (26), (29)).

Parents dissatisfied with their child’s IEP, believing it does not provide a FAPE, can follow a series of administrative steps to challenge the IEP, the last of which is filing a lawsuit in federal court.  IDEA requires parents to complete each step (in legal terms, to “exhaust these administrative remedies”) prior to filing a lawsuit.  Sometimes, parents will assert in such a lawsuit that the school district’s conduct also—or exclusively—violated other federal anti-discrimination statutes.

In Fry, the parents challenged the school district’s decision to preclude their child from using a service animal in school.  In the school district’s view, the child’s receipt of one-on-one support rendered the service animal superfluous, and the child received a FAPE through the district’s implementation of the IEP.  Eventually, the parents filed a federal lawsuit ostensibly asserting claims under only the ADA and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, seeking a declaration that the district violated these statutes, as well as money damages.  The school district moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the parents failed to exhaust their IDEA administrative remedies.  The district court granted the motion to dismiss and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that the parents were required to exhaust administrative remedies because “‘the genesis and the manifestations’ of the complained-of harms were ‘educational’ in nature.”  Op. at 8 (quoting 788 F.3d 622, 627 (6th Cir. 2015)).

The Supreme Court vacated this decision, finding the Sixth Circuit’s standard incorrect.  Instead, the Court held that the statute’s express terms dictate that administrative exhaustion is necessary only when the suit seeks the specific relief IDEA makes available: “relief for the denial of a FAPE.”  Op. at 13.  The next logical question, therefore, is how to determine when a suit that, on its face, asserts claims under other federal anti-discrimination statutes, is really seeking relief for the denial of a FAPE.  The Court began its answer to this question by agreeing with a sentiment exposed by both parties—“What matters is the crux—or, in legal speak, the gravamen—of the plaintiff’s complaint, setting aside any attempts at artful pleading.”  Op. at 13.  In other words, courts are to ignore labels or “magic words” used by the plaintiff and instead look at the substance of the relief sought.

The Court then attempted to aid lower courts in their analysis of the gravamen of the complaint by instructing courts to ask two hypothetical questions: “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?”  Op. at 15.  Affirmative answers indicate that the relief sought may not be for a FAPE; negative answers indicate that the relief sought may be for a FAPE, in which case exhaustion of administrative remedies would be required.  The Court also instructed lower courts to consider whether the parents had initiated and participated in some administrative steps of a FAPE challenge to the IEP, which would indicate that achieving a FAPE was their goal.  Through several hypothetical examples, the Court attempted to illustrate how these tests would apply in practice.  Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, dissented from this final portion of the opinion, asserting that, contrary to the Court’s stated purpose of providing examples and clues to aid lower courts, “[t]hey are likely to confuse and lead courts astray.”  Op. of Alito, J. at 2.

Observers of the Court’s IDEA cases are undoubtedly reading this opinion closely to see if the Court (or, more precisely, Justice Kagan as Fry’s majority author) would tip its hand in any manner with respect to another critical IDEA case pending before the case this term: Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1.  In Endrew, the Court will evaluate the standard a district must meet to provide a FAPE to a student with a disability.  Interestingly, when describing the FAPE requirement, the Court stated: “Under [the FAPE] standard, this Court has held, a child is entitled to ‘meaningful’ access to education based on her individual needs.”  Op. at 11 (citing Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist., Westchester Cnty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 192 (1982).  At oral argument in Endrew, counsel for the school district argued that the word “meaningful” in Rowley did not set any sort of standard (Endrew Tr. at 44-45) and counsel for the government—though supporting the student—also urged the Court to avoid the word “meaningful” in the standard it ultimately adopts (Endrew Tr. at 21).  Observers should be cautious to read too much into this language in Fry, however, as the Court expressly acknowledged Endrew is pending this term (Op. at 11 n.5) and declined to elaborate further on any FAPE standards.

Disclosure: Husch Blackwell LLP authored and filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Council of the Great City Schools in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1.

What this means for you:

 This decision may encourage more litigation seeking damages against school districts for refusing to accommodate the requests of students with disabilities.  In any event, school districts that are sued by parents under the ADA, § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, or other federal anti-discrimination statutes should evaluate the substance of the claim to determine whether the relief sought really is for a failure to provide a FAPE.  If so, the parents were required to exhaust IDEA’s administrative remedies, and a failure to do so would likely result in dismissal of the case.  If, however, the case seeks exclusively other relief, no exhaustion is required.

We will continue to monitor further developments on the interpretation of IDEA, including the Endrew case, and will provide updates on this blog when appropriate.