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

By on September 21, 2016 in Special Education/504 with 0 Comments

Parents who bring claims on behalf of a disabled student under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (“IDEA”) against a school district are first required to follow the administrative process. 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. Are parents required to exhaust this same administrative process when they allege violations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”) but not the IDEA? The answer is yes, according to a recent opinion issued by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on August 18, 2016 in S.D. v. Haddon Heights Board of Education, No. 15-1804, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 15172 (3d Cir. 2016).

The parents of a student enrolled in the Haddon Heights School District (“District”) sued the District in U.S. District Court alleging that the District unlawfully discriminated against him in violation of various federal and state statutes. The majority of their claims focused on allegations that the District violated the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by failing to properly accommodate the student’s disability. Notably, the parents did not allege any IDEA violations.

The District provided the student with accommodations through a Section 504 plan to address his various disabilities. In their complaint, the parents alleged that the Section 504 plans offered to the student 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. The parents also alleged that the District retaliated against him for enforcing the student’s rights under non-IDEA statutes.

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. The parents did not request an administrative due process hearing and instead filed their claims directly in federal court. The Third Circuit pointed to Section 1415(l) of the IDEA which requires exhaustion of remedies for IDEA actions but also in non-IDEA actions in which the relief sought by the parent can be obtained under the IDEA.

In reaching its decision, the Third Circuit reasoned that if a non-IDEA claim falls within the scope contemplated by the IDEA, then the parents are required to exhaust administrative remedies. That is, if the claim, while it may be labeled by the parent as a non-IDEA claim, relates to the identification, evaluation, educational placement, or the provision of a free appropriate public education of a child, then it falls within the scope of the IDEA, and exhaustion of administrative remedies is required.

The Third Circuit reminds us in this case that public policy strongly favors the exhaustion of administrative remedies in order to create a complete record and allow the state educational agencies to apply their expertise in these areas of law.

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Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev

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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