IDEA and ADA – What Recourse Do Families Have?

Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools 788 F.3d 622 (6th Cir. 2015) Now Before the Supreme Court Will Provide Clarity Regarding Whether Parents Need to File for Due Process and Exhaust Administrative Remedies Under IDEA  Before They Can Pursue Their Rights Under the Anti-Discrimination Laws

IDEA or ADA Fry V Napoleon Community SchoolsOn Monday, October 31, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, in what is a pivotal special education law case.  At issue is whether parents must  first request a due process hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) and exhaust  the  administrative remedies through the IDEA* before they may seek judicial relief through the ADA* and Section 504* for monetary damages in federal court.

This case is of particular interest to parents/guardians of students with disabilities because not all claims are appropriate for IDEA. To force parents to exhaust IDEA administrative remedies even when IDEA procedures cannot resolve the harms or provide meaningful relief would be to deny students with disabilities the right to pursue their Section 504 and ADA anti-discrimination rights.

In this case, the parents of E.F., a student with cerebral palsy, with no cognitive impairment, brought this case under the ADA and Section 504 to seek damages for the social and emotional harm caused by the school district’s refusal to permit E.F.’s trained service dog to accompany her to school, a remedy not available under IDEA. The school district refused to allow E.F. to bring her service dog to school on the theory that by providing her with a one on one assistant pursuant to her Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the school district has satisfied its obligations under the IDEA.  The district further argued that parents could not file a suit for damages under the ADA and Section 504 without first completing the administrative appeals under the IDEA.

However, the IDEA is NOT the ADA or Section 504. In fact, the IDEA statute very different from the ADA and Section 504. IDEA provides that students classified as disabled are entitled to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) implemented through an IEP containing appropriate special education and related services. The IDEA also provides procedural safeguards to parents and disabled students. But, the IDEA guarantees only a floor of opportunity for students with disabilities – it does not guarantee equal educational opportunities or the recovery of money damages. By contrast, the ADA and Section 504, also known as anti-discrimination statutes, both require equal educational opportunity to a qualified individual with a disability. Under these laws, public entities are required to make reasonable modifications to rules, policies or practices in order to avoid discrimination. The ADA and Section 504 also provide damages liability for violations that the IDEA does not.

In this case, E.F.’s Section 504 and ADA claims do not involve the right to receive FAPE under IDEA and as such, she is not seeking relief available under IDEA and exhaustion of IDEA’s administrative procedures should not be required. While hearing arguments Monday from attorneys on both sides of this case, members of the Supreme Court asked equally tough questions on both positions. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will determine whether IDEA exhaustion of administrative remedies is required for claims brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act for claims and remedies not available under the IDEA.

The Special Education Law team at McDowell, Posternock, Apell and Detrick will continue to monitor this case and the Supreme Court’s decision.  The Posternock Apell, PC Special Education Law team is always available to discuss your special education rights and will fight with and for you and your disabled student. Call us at 856-642-6445.