In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, Docket No. 15–497, the U.S. Supreme Court examined a disability-based discrimination claim brought by a Michigan student against a public school. A disabled student alleging discrimination has three primary federal statutes on which she can rely to bring her claim: (1) Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits any public entity from discriminating based on disability; (2) §504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits any federally funded program or activity from discriminating based on disability; and (3) the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees disabled children access to a free appropriate public education tailored to their individual needs.
If a claim is brought under the IDEA, the plaintiff must first exhaust the administrative procedures specified in that statute -- filing a complaint with the local educational agency, attending a meeting with school officials, participating in a due process hearing, and appealing an unfavorable ruling from that hearing with the state agency — before bringing suit in court. Congress subsequently passed a law requiring a plaintiff bringing a claim under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act to exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures first, even if the plaintiff is not bringing any claim under the IDEA— provided that the plaintiff is seeking relief that would also be available to her under the IDEA. This prevents plaintiffs from electing to bring a claim under one of the other acts simply to avoid having to go through the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement. The issue in Fry is whether all education-based discrimination claims brought under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act are subject to the IDEA’s administrative proceedings requirement, or whether this only applies in certain circumstances.
The plaintiff in Fry, E.F., was a kindergartner with a severe form of cerebral palsy. When she started school at Ezra Eby Elementary School in Napoleon, Michigan, she sought permission to have her service dog, Wonder, accompany her. Because school officials had already agreed to assign an aide to work with E.F. one-on-one throughout the day, they thought that Wonder’s assistance would be unnecessary and denied E.F.’s request to bring him to school with her. E.F.’s parents ultimately filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, alleging violations of Title II of the ADA and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act.
The District Court dismissed E.F.’s claim, since she failed to exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures before bringing suit. The Sixth Circuit upheld the dismissal, reasoning that the IDEA’s administrative exhaustion requirements apply whenever a disability-based discrimination claim is educational in nature, even if it is brought under a different statutory scheme, such as the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed the Sixth Court, finding its interpretation of the scope of the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement too broad. Rather, the Supreme Court held that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement applies only to cases where the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is the denial of access to a free appropriate public education. The Court reasoned that the core guarantee of the IDEA was to provide disabled children with access to a free appropriate public education, and therefore the Sixth Circuit’s holding that the exhaustion requirements applied whenever the plaintiff’s claim was connected in any manner to the child’s education was too broad.
The Supreme Court found that two questions will be helpful in determining whether gravamen of the plaintiff’s complaint is the denial of a free appropriate public education or some other form of disability-based discrimination: (1) could the plaintiff have brought the same claim if the conduct had occurred at a public facility other than a school?; and (2) could an adult, as opposed to a student, have brought the same claim against the school? If the answer to those questions is yes, then the gravamen of the plaintiff’s complaint is likely to be something other than a denial of a free appropriate public education, and the IDEA’s administration exhaustion requirements would not apply. Additionally, the Court suggested that if a plaintiff had begun to utilize the IDEA’s administrative proceedings at the beginning of her case before abandoning the process mid-way through, this could be an indication that the gravamen of her complaint is the denial of a free appropriate public education to which the exhaustion requirement would apply.
The Court ultimately remanded Fry to the District Court for further investigation on the gravamen of Fry’s complaint. If the gravamen is that E.F. was denied a free appropriate public education, then she will have to exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures before bringing her suit in federal court. If the gravamen is found to be a different form of disability-based discrimination, the E.F.’s suit will be allowed to continue.