United States Supreme Court Explains the Interplay Among Disability Rights Laws in Public Schools

 In Children with Special Needs, Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Food Allergies, Mobility Impairments, Other Mental Disabilities, Service Animal

In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools et al., the United States Supreme Court explained the interplay among disability rights laws in public schools.  In Fry, a school refused to allow E.F., a kindergartener with a severe form of cerebral palsy, to bring her trained service dog, Wonder, to school.  The school insisted that Wonder was not needed since the school was already providing E.F. with free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) in the form of a human assistant.

At issue in Fry was the interplay of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 84 Stat. 175, as amended, 20 U.S.C. §1400 et seq., with other laws—especially other laws protecting disabled children, such as the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §12131 et seq. and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §794.

The Supreme Court noted that the IDEA’s declared purpose is “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education” and that to further this purpose any state receiving federal funding must make a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) “available to all children with disabilities.”  Fry at 11 (citing §1400(d)(1)(A) and §1412(a)(1)(A)).  Because of the primacy of FAPE in the IDEA, the Supreme Court concluded that the only form of redress an IDEA hearing officer can give is providing a FAPE.  In other words, the whole point of the IDEA is access to a FAPE, and the only way to challenge a school to get a FAPE is by pursuing all administrative remedies.  Exhausting these administrative remedies is a prerequisite to filing suit to obtain a FAPE.  20 U.S.C. §1415(l).

By contrast, Title II of the ADA and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act provide disabled individuals with nondiscriminatory access to public institutions.  Unlike IDEA violations, ADA and Rehabilitation Act violations can result in not only injunctive relief, but also money damages.  29 U. S. C. §794a(a)(2); 42 U. S. C. §12133.

Title II of the ADA forbids public entities (including, but not limited to, public schools) from discriminating based on disability.  Public entities have to make reasonable modifications to their policies, practices, or procedures provide program access to disabled individuals.   42 U. S. C. §§12131–12132; 29 U. S. C. §794(a); 28 CFR §35.130(b)(7) (2016); see, e.g., Alboniga v. School Bd. of Broward Cty., 87 F. Supp. 3d 1319, 1345 (SD Fla. 2015).  Similarly, §504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires nondiscriminatory access to public institutions (including, but not limited to, public schools) by requiring reasonable modifications to existing practices to accommodate disabled individuals. Alexander v. Choate, 469 U. S. 287, 299–300 (1985); see, e.g., Sullivan v. Vallejo City Unified School Dist., 731 F. Supp. 947, 961–962 (E.D. Cal. 1990).

The Supreme Court determined that just because a child receives FAPE, his or her rights under other laws are not necessarily being met.  On the one hand, when a disabled child encounters discrimination for which an ADA or Rehabilitation Act claim could be brought, the child need not exhaust the administrative procedure before filing suit for those claims, even if the discrimination has an incidental impact on the child’s education.  On the other hand, if a child is denied a FAPE, the child must first exhaust all administrative remedies before filing suit—even when the denial of a FAPE also violates the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act.

To determine if the gravamen of a case is about denial of a FAPE (and thus triggers the exhaustion of administrative procedures prerequisite to filing suit), the Court suggests asking two hypothetical questions:

  • “[C]ould 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?”
  • “[C]ould an adult at the school—say, an employee or visitor— have pressed essentially the same grievance?

The Court reasons that when the answer to those questions is yes, the case probably isn’t really about denial of a FAPE, so exhaustion of administrative remedies is not required.  Fry at 15-16.  Finally, the Court notes that the procedural history of an issue, such as whether parents initially pursued IDEA administrative relief, might be a clue to whether there is an IDEA issue that requires exhaustion of administrative procedures.  However, the Court cautioned that only the IDEA’s formal administrative procedures should be considered in this analysis.

In conclusion, Fry clarifies that children with disabilities do not have to jump through the administrative hoops of the IDEA just to protect their other rights, such as their rights under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.  This is good news for disability rights advocates everywhere!

This document is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For legal advice on your own situation, please contact an attorney.

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