A Capehart Scatchard Blog

Third Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Parents’ Complaint for Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies – Again

By on February 27, 2018 in Special Education/504 with 0 Comments

In the last year, our federal courts have addressed the exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement for parents who bring claims against a school district on behalf of a disabled student under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”). Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in February 2017 in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools that parents are required to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) when the heart of their complaint alleges a denial of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which applies to New Jersey, recently applied the Fry standard on January 31, 2018 in S.D. v. Haddon Heights Board of Education, No. 15-1804, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 2384 (3d Cir. 2018).

In New Jersey, IDEA claims must first be filed with the State’s Office of Special Education Programs, and then the case is transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law for a due process hearing and disposition. A parent who disagrees with the Administrative Law Judge’s decision may then file an appeal in federal court.

In this case, the parents of a disabled student sued the Haddon Heights Board of Education (“Board”) directly in U.S. District Court alleging that the Board unlawfully discriminated against him in violation of Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The parents did not explicitly allege any IDEA violations. However, the parents alleged that the Section 504 plans offered to the student by the Board failed to properly accommodate his disability and failed to provide him with certain services which precluded him from enjoying the benefits of the educational program to the same extent as his non-disabled peers.

In September 2016, the Third Circuit Court upheld the U.S. District’s Court’s decision to dismiss the parents’ claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA reasoning that the parents’ claims fell within the scope contemplated by the IDEA. In light of the Fry decision issued in February 2017, the Third Circuit revisited the case under the standard set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court – that is, whether the alleged claims touch upon a FAPE, and if so, such claims must first be adjudicated through the administrative process.

In its recent decision, the Third Circuit, in applying the Fry standard, again upheld the dismissal of the parents’ claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The Third Circuit reasoned that the parents’ alleged educational harm, by way of educational regression, due to deficient Section 504 plans, which was an issue of FAPE at the center of case. Such a claim was not one that a student could bring against another public facility that was not a school or that a nonstudent could initiate for alleged wrongs in a school setting. In short, the Third Circuit concluded that the heart of the complaint was whether the Board provided the student with a FAPE, which triggers the exhaustion requirements under the IDEA.


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About the Author

About the Author:

Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq. concentrates her practice on the representation of boards of education and charter schools in all areas of school law including: labor and employment, special education, Section 504, student discipline, FERPA, Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, student residency, civil rights, tenure, OPRA, and OPMA. In connection with these representations, she is experienced in handling matters before State and Federal courts, including the Office of Administrative Law. Ms. Dev is an experienced special education litigator and defends school districts in due process hearings from inception through trial. In addition, she has handled matters before governmental agencies, including the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. Ms. Dev routinely conducts training and seminars, drafts policies and manuals, and provides strategic advice to school administrators regarding school law issues. Ms. Dev was recently recognized as one of South Jersey’s Awesome Attorneys as published by South Jersey Magazine. She is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, the District Court for the District of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.


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