Supreme Court Decides Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools

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On February 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court decided Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, No. 15-497, holding that a plaintiff need not exhaust administrative procedures under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) where the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee of a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to children with certain disabilities.  

The IDEA offers federal funds to States in exchange for a commitment to furnish a FAPE to children with certain disabilities, 20 U. S. C. §1412(a)(1)(A), and establishes formal administrative procedures for resolving disputes between parents and schools concerning the provision of a FAPE. Other federal statutes also protect the interests of children with disabilities, including Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The Handicapped Children’s Protection Act of 1986 adds a carefully defined exhaustion provision that requires a plaintiff bringing suit under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, or similar laws “seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA]” to first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures. 20 U.S.C. §1415(l). 

Fry’s daughter E.F. has a severe form of cerebral palsy, and her trained service dog assists her with various daily life activities. When E. F.’s parents sought permission for the dog to join E. F. in kindergarten, officials at her school refused, claiming that the human aide provided as part of E. F.’s individualized education program rendered the dog superfluous. The Frys removed E.F. from the school and began homeschooling her.   

The Frys filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, claiming that the exclusion of E.F.’s service animal violated her rights under Title II and § 504. The Frys then filed suit in federal court against the local and regional school districts and the principal, alleging violations of Title II and §504 and seeking declaratory and monetary relief. The District Court dismissed the suit, holding that section 1415(l) required the Frys to first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that §1415(l) applies whenever a plaintiff’s alleged harms are “educational” in nature.

The Supreme Court vacated and remanded. The Court held that exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative procedures is unnecessary where the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee of a FAPE, and directed the Sixth Circuit on remand to analyze whether the gravamen of E. F.’s complaint charges and seeks relief for the denial of a FAPE. The Court reasoned that the statutory language at issue, which compels exhaustion when a plaintiff seeks “relief ” that is “available” under the IDEA, establishes the scope of §1415(l), and therefore focused on the circumstances in which the IDEA enables a person to obtain redress or to access a benefit. The Court concluded that the applicability of section 1415(l)’s exhaustion rule hinges on whether a lawsuit seeks relief for the denial of a free appropriate public education. Although a plaintiff cannot escape §1415(l)’s requirements merely by bringing suit under a statute other than the IDEA, a suit under a different statute that does not seek a remedy for the denial of a FAPE does not require exhaustion under the IDEA’s procedures. A court deciding whether §1415(l) applies must therefore examine whether a plaintiff’s complaint seeks relief for the denial of an appropriate education; if so, exhaustion of the IDEA procedures is required.

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment in which Justice Thomas joined.

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