Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools

137 S.Ct. 743 (2017)


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures that children with disabilities receive needed special education services. If a suit seeks relief that is also available under IDEA, the plaintiff must first exhaust IDEA’s administrative procedures. IDEA offers federal funds to States in exchange for a commitment: to furnish a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to all children with certain physical or intellectual disabilities. An eligible child acquires a “substantive right” to such an education once a State accepts the IDEA’s financial assistance. An “individualized education program” (IEP)serves as the “primary vehicle” for providing each child with the promised FAPE. IDEA establishes formal procedures for resolving disputes. A dissatisfied parent may file a complaint as to any matter concerning the provision of a FAPE with the local or state educational agency (as state law provides). The parties may pursue a full-fledged mediation process. Or a “due process hearing” before an impartial hearing officer may be initiated. In addition, Title II forbids any “public entity” from discriminating based on disability. Based on conflicts between laws and court decisions which Congress did not like, Congress passed the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act of 1986 overturning the courts and also adding a carefully defined exhaustion requirement. Now codified at 20 U. S. C. §1415(l). The first half of §1415(l) reaffirms the viability of federal statutes like the ADA or Rehabilitation Act as separate vehicles no less integral than IDEA. IDEA does not prevent a plaintiff from asserting claims under such laws even if those claims allege the denial of an appropriate public education (much as an IDEA claim would). The statute then imposes an exhaustion provision. IF a plaintiff bringing suit under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, or similar laws must in certain circumstances-that is, when “seeking relief that is also available under” IDEA-first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures. E.F. (P) is a child with a severe form of cerebral palsy. When P was five years old, her parents obtained a trained service dog for her, as recommended by her pediatrician. The dog, a golden poodle, named Wonder, “help P to live as independently as possible” by assisting her with various life activities. Wonder aids E. F. by “retrieving dropped items, helping her balance when she uses her walker, opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights, helping her take off her coat, [and] helping her transfer to and from the toilet.” P sought permission for Wonder to join her in kindergarten. Officials at D refused the request. Under P’s existing IEP, a human aide provided P with one-on-one support throughout the day; that two-legged assistance, the school officials thought, rendered Wonder superfluous. Her parents removed P from D and began homeschooling her. P then filed a complaint under Title II of the ADA and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Following an investigation, OCR agreed. The office explained in its decision letter that a school’s obligations under those statutes go beyond providing educational services: A school could offer a FAPE to a child with a disability but still run afoul of the laws’ ban on discrimination. Eventually, P found a different public school, in a different district, where administrators and teachers enthusiastically received both P and Wonder. P filed this suit in federal court against D. The complaint alleged that the school districts violated Title II of the ADA and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The District Court granted D's motion to dismiss the suit, holding that §1415(l) required the Frys to first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures. The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed on the same ground. In that court’s view, §1415(l) applies if “the injuries [alleged in a suit] relate to the specific substantive protections of the IDEA.” The Supreme Court granted certiorari.