On September 16, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held in a precedential decision that, as a technical legal matter, a student’s eligibility for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not automatically result in that student’s eligibility as an individual with a disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). B.C. v. Mount Vernon Sch. Dist., — F. 3d —, No. 14-3603, 2016 WL 4926147 (2d Cir. Sept. 16, 2016).
In Mount Vernon, parents of two students who received special education under the IDEA brought a lawsuit against the school district alleging that the district’s policy of scheduling remedial academic classes (which did not provide academic credit) during the school day had an adverse or disproportionate disparate impact on students with disabilities and resulted in those students accumulating fewer credits. The only evidence the parents provided in support of their claims, however, was statistical data showing that these classes contained a higher percentage of students identified as students with disabilities under the IDEA than students not identified under the IDEA.
The Second Circuit held that the parents failed to establish their claim “[b]ecause, as a matter of law, an IDEA disability does not necessarily constitute a disability under the ADA or Section 504.” Id. The court explained that Section 504 and the ADA define “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, whereas, under the IDEA a student is a “child with a disability” if he or she has one of the IDEA’s enumerated disability categories and, as a result, requires special education and related services. Therefore, according to the court, “a child might need special education and related services by reason of an impairment even if that impairment does not substantially limit a major life activity.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The court observed that, while “many, if not most” students covered by the IDEA may also have disabilities as defined by Section 504 and the ADA, such a determination is not automatic.
As a result of the court’s ruling, a student bringing Section 504 or ADA claims in federal courts within the Second Circuit’s jurisdiction, including Connecticut, will have to offer additional evidence that the student qualifies under Section 504/ADA beyond his or her eligibility under the IDEA.
This judicial decision, however, likely will not impact how schools implement Section 504 and the ADA. First, the evaluative information used by planning and placement teams to conclude that a student is eligible under the IDEA generally will be sufficient to demonstrate that the student also has an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Indeed, the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education previously has observed that it “cannot conceive of any situation in which [students eligible under the IDEA] would not also be entitled to the protection extended by Section 504.” Letter to Veir, 20 IDELR 864, 867 (OCR 1993). Second, if a student is eligible under the IDEA, public school districts must adhere to the IDEA’s more robust procedural requirements and following such IDEA procedures is a permissible method of complying with any overlapping procedural requirements under Section 504. Nevertheless, this case is a reminder that there are few, if any, automatic or bright line rules in the laws concerning students with disabilities.