Eight long years, and we finally have a new decision impacting families protected under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). The Fry plaintiffs asserted claims under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504)that the Napoleon Community Schools discriminated against their child, E.F., by refusing to permit her to use her service dog – Wonder, the golden doodle – to assist her in school. The issue presented is whether the parents had to first bring their claims in a due process proceeding, which is an administrative proceeding, before bringing a lawsuit. This is known as the “exhaustion” requirement. Section 1415(l) of the IDEA says that parents and children protected under the IDEA retain their rights under other laws, but that if they are seeking relief “that is also available under the IDEA,” they have to “exhaust” the administrative due process avenue first.
The Fry’s complaint was dismissed by both the district court and 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. They held that the harm suffered was “educational in nature.” In an opinion by Justice Kagan, the Supreme Court opined that the incorrect analytical framework was used and sent the case back (remanded it) to the Sixth Circuit. Instead, the analysis should have looked to whether the suit alleges educationally related injuries rather than injuries relating to access. The Court suggested that the analysis should explore whether the same ADA or 504 violations could be asserted against other public facilities or by an adult. The opinion also instructs the lower court to explore whether the parents had initiated a due process proceeding, since that information was not contained in the record. Justices Alito and Thomas agreed with the rest of the Court, but opined that the suggested analytical framework was confusing. Justices Alito and Thomas wrote that exploring whether the same claim could be brought against another public facility or by an adult works only if there is no overlap between the IDEA, the ADA and Section 504. They also wrote that looking to whether the parents had started a due process proceeding is irrelevant.
In my view, the significance of this case is that IDEA is well beyond a straightforward, simple area of law. Instead, it is an area fraught with complexity requiring guidance from a person knowledgeable in legal nuances and procedure.