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U.S. Supreme Court Rules Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies Not Required in Non-FAPE Cases

In a long awaited case involving a student requesting the use of a service dog in school, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled on February 22, 2017 in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools that parents are not required to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) when the heart of their complaint does not allege a denial of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”).

This case involved a student with cerebral palsy who qualified for special education and related services under the IDEA when she attended a public school in Michigan. As a result, she was eligible for an individualized education plan (“IEP”) to address her unique needs. The parents requested that the student’s service dog accompany her in school to assist her with various daily life activities. The school district denied the request, explaining that the human aide provided in the student’s IEP sufficiently addressed her needs, thereby making the service dog unnecessary. The parents removed the student from the school and ultimately enrolled her in a different school that allowed the service dog. The parents then sued the school district in federal court alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The parents did not allege claims under the IDEA.

In granting the school district’s motion to dismiss, the District Court reasoned that the parents of a disabled student are first required to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA when their alleged harms are educational in nature even if they are not directly alleging IDEA violations. According to the District Court, they must first request a due process hearing before resorting to federal court. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed.

The Supreme Court disagreed and vacated the Sixth Circuit’s decision. In its decision, the Supreme Court reasoned that if a complaint alleges something other than a denial of a FAPE, then exhaustion of administrative remedies is not required. Notably, the Supreme Court recognized that parents of disabled students cannot simply file in District Court and bypass a due process hearing by alleging violations of statutes other than the IDEA. Rather, the alleged claims must truly not touch upon a FAPE in order to file directly in federal court. The Supreme Court posed two questions for analyzing whether a complaint is about a FAPE:  1) whether the student could assert the same claim against a non-educational public facility and 2) whether an adult could file the same claim against the school district.

The Supreme Court remanded the case to the Sixth Circuit to determine whether the parents’ claims are related to a FAPE.

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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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