Earlier today, a unanimous United States Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools.  The Court overturned the lower courts’ decisions and remanded the case to the appeals court to determine whether the plaintiffs’ suit is about a denial of a FAPE rather than discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Sec. 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.   

The Fry case involved E.F., a student with cerebral palsy, and her assistance dog, Wonder.  When E.F. was a kindergartner, her parents, Stacy and Brent Fry, asked the school she attended, Ezra Eby Elementary School, to allow Wonder to accompany her to school.  Although it allowed Wonder to attend on a trial basis, the school did not allow him to assist E.F. with many of the tasks he had been trained to perform.  Following the trial, the school declined to allow Wonder to continue to attend school with E.F.  The Frys removed E.F. from Ezra Eby and homeschooled her until they found another school, in another district, that welcomed Wonder. 

The Frys sued the local and regional districts in which E.F.’s former elementary school was located.  The complaint alleged that the school districts violated Title II of ADA and Sec. 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by denying E.F. equal access to the school and its programs, refusing to reasonably accommodate E.F.’s use of a service animal, and discriminating against E.F. as a person with disabilities.

The districts filed a motion to dismiss the Frys suit.  The motion asserted that the Frys were required, by Sec. 1415(l) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to exhaust administrative remedies in IDEA before filing suit under ADA and Sec. 504.  The district court granted the districts’ motion.  The court of appeals affirmed, holding that Sec. 1415(l) applies if the injuries alleged in a suit “relate to the specific substantive protections of the IDEA.” 

In an opinion written by Justice Kagan, the US Supreme Court remanded that case to the appeals court for additional review.  The Supreme Court held that a plaintiff need not exhaust IDEA’s remedies provided “the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee of a FAPE.”  Exhaustion of IDEA’s remedies is required only when the plaintiff seeks relief available under IDEA. 

To establish the scope of the exhaustion language in IDEA, the court said, one must identify whether the crux of a lawsuit seeks relief for the denial of a FAPE. If so, the plaintiff cannot bypass the exhaustion requirements in IDEA by suing under other statutes. 

The court set forth two questions that can be asked to determine whether a complaint against a school concerns the denial of a FAPE or addresses disability-based discrimination.  The first question is: “Could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school—say, a public theater or library?”  The second question is: “Could an adult at the school—say, an employee or visitor—have pressed essentially the same grievance?”  If the answer to these questions is yes, the complaint is unlikely to be truly about the denial of a FAPE.  When the answer is no, the complaint probably does concern a FAPE. 

When the Supreme Court applied these two questions to the Frys’ complaint, it concluded that the answer to both is yes, suggesting that the Frys’ complaint is not truly about the denial of a FAPE.  However, the court also noted that, if the plaintiffs had pursued administrative remedies under IDEA before bringing their current suit, it would be evidence that the substance of the complaint is the denial of a FAPE, even if the complaint does not use that term. 

The court remanded the case to the court of appeals for an analysis of whether the crux of the Frys’ complaint is the denial of a FAPE, even though the complaint makes no reference to the adequacy of special education services E.F.’s school provided.  The court specifically charged the appeals court to determine: 1) whether the Frys invoked IDEA’s dispute resolution process before filing suit under ADA and Sec. 504; and 2) if so, whether pursuing that process reveals that the essence of their complaint is the denial of a FAPE.   

The Legal Ledger will continue to follow this case and report on the appeals court’s analysis and decision.  

Posted by Jennifer Hardin on 2/22/2017