On February 22, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, No. 15-487 (2017), which addressed the issue of when a parent who brings a claim against a school district under laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, on behalf of a student with a disability, must first exhaust their claims through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (“IDEA”) due process hearing procedures. By way of background, the IDEA includes a provision permitting parents to file a suit in court against school districts under laws, aside from the IDEA, that also protect students with disabilities, but that parents must first pursue those claims through the IDEA due process system if the parents “seek relief that is also available” under the IDEA. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l). In the Fry decision, the Supreme Court unanimously held, 8-0, that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement applies only to claims by parents under laws other than the IDEA where the “gravamen” of the complaint relates to an alleged denial of a student’s right to a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”).
This decision addressed confusion among lower courts as to when the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement applies to claims brought by parents on behalf of students for disability discrimination, usually under the ADA or Section 504. Some courts, including the court whose decision the Supreme Court was reviewing, had interpreted the exhaustion requirement broadly, essentially concluding that if the claim related to the education of a student with a disability, then parents must first use the IDEA’s due process procedures. The Supreme Court rejected that broad approach and instead limited the application of the exhaustion rule to those claims where the substance of the claim seeks relief for a denial of FAPE. In doing so, the Court remanded the case back to the lower court to apply the correct standard and reconsider their decision. As a result, however, the Court did not reach a related, and important, issue of whether the IDEA exhaustion requirement applies to claims by parents seeking money damages from a school district for disability discrimination against a student with a disability. The answer to that question likely will determine whether school districts see a marked increase in litigation alleging disability discrimination seeking such monetary relief rather than FAPE-based remedies.
Importantly however, these issues relate primarily to litigation strategy. The Court’s decision in this case will not have a large practical impact on the daily operations of public school districts as this case did not alter any legal obligations of schools to students with disabilities. Nevertheless, school districts should understand that it is possible for parents to bring certain disability-related claims not involving FAPE directly to court rather than through the IDEA’s due process procedures, which also include the IDEA’s resolution session and mediation procedures.