Case Law / Legal Brief
A project of the Southeast ADA Center and Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University

Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools

United States Supreme Court
137 S. Ct. 743
February 22, 2017

Keywords: IDEA, ADA Title II, Section 504, exhaustion requirement, service animal

Summary

E.F. was denied use of her service dog at her elementary school. Her family sued under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, arguing that denial of the service dog was discrimination on the basis of the disability.

The District Court and Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals both dismissed the claim, saying that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) required the exhaustion of administrative remedies for education based claims. However, here the Supreme Court held that, when a claim is not really about education, the plaintiff does not need to meet the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement. They went on to discuss ways to determine when a claim is, or is not, about education.

Facts of the Case

E.F. was a student with cerebral palsy, which significantly limited her fine motor skills and her mobility. When she was five years old, her parents obtained for her a trained service dog – a goldendoodle named Wonder. Wonder helped E.F. live independently, helping her do things like take off her coat, use her walker, and get in and out of the restroom, among other things.

When E.F. was going into kindergarten, the Fry’s sought permission from Ezra Eby Elementary School to have Wonder accompany E.F. School officials denied this request, arguing that E.F.’s current Individualized Education Plan (IEP) provided her with a human aide who would assist her throughout the day. The school eventually let Wonder accompany E.F. for a trial period. However, during this period, Wonder was forced to stay in the back of the classroom, and was forbidden from performing many of the tasks he was trained to do. At the conclusion of the trial period, the school again forbade Wonder from accompanying E.F. The Frys subsequently withdrew E.F. from Ezra Eby, began homeschooling her, and ultimately found another school district that would accept Wonder.

The Frys also filed a complaint, claiming that Ezra Eby’s conduct violated Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. They argued that a school is obliged, just as any other public entity, to provide equal access to the school itself, and its programs. The Frys also argued that E.F. suffered emotional distress, pain, and embarrassment as a result of the school’s discrimination against her. They asked for a declaration that the school district had violated Title II and Section 504, as well as money damages.

The District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted the school district’s motion to dismiss. They held that Section 1415 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) required exhaustion of administrative procedures. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. They held that when the complaint alleges harms that were educational in nature, and related to substantial portions of the IDEA, exhaustion was required. The Frys appealed.

Issues of the Case

  1. What relief is available under the IDEA?
  2. Is exhaustion required when the plaintiff seeks relief not available under the IDEA?
  3. How should courts determine what type of relief a plaintiff seeks?

Arguments & Analysis

1. What relief is available under the IDEA?

The exhaustion requirement of the IDEA involves formal procedures for dispute resolution set up by the statute. These procedures include filing a complaint with local educational agencies, preliminary (and full-fledged) mediation between the two parties, and ultimately a due process hearing in front of an impartial officer. Ultimately, after going through these procedures, a parent unhappy with the outcome can seek judicial review.

It is important to note that any administrative decision granting substantive relief must be based on a determination about whether the child received a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The Supreme Court looked to the history and the language of the IDEA to determine that the only substantive right the IDEA makes available is the FAPE.

2. Is exhaustion required when the plaintiff seeks relief not available under the IDEA?

No. The Court holds that, when a suit is not for a denial of a FAPE, exhaustion of IDEA remedies is not required. A suit for denial of a FAPE is the triggering mechanism for IDEA exhaustion. Because the only relief that an IDEA administrative officer can give is relief for denial of a FAPE, if a plaintiff brought a claim that was not for denial of a FAPE through those procedures, they would be wasting their time. Hearing officers would be powerless to offer any relief. The Court holds that a claim arising under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act does not require exhaustion of administrative remedies simply by virtue of being brought by a student against their school.

3. How should courts determine what type of relief a plaintiff seeks?

The Court holds that it is the gravamen, or crux, of the complaint that courts must look to in order to determine what statute it arises under. No “magic words” are required in the pleadings. The important inquiry is what relief the suit in fact seeks, and whether that relief is available under the IDEA. The inquiry is based on what the plaintiff actually sought, not what type of relief they could have sought. If the gravamen of the complaint is denial of a FAPE, exhaustion is required, even if the complaint is not so precisely framed as seeking that type of relief.

The Court gave two hypothetical questions for use in determining what type of complaint is being brought. First, “could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school?” And second, could an adult at the school, for example a teacher or a visitor, have brought the exact same complaint? When the answer to either questions is yes, it is unlikely that denial of a FAPE is the gravamen of the suit. And where the answer is no, the complaint is more likely to concern the denial of a FAPE. The Court also recommends looking to procedural history to determine what the gravamen of the suit is. If the plaintiff initially made use of IDEA procedures, it is more likely than not the gravamen of the complaint is the denial of a FAPE.

Holding

The Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s decision, and remanded the case. They said that nothing in the record suggests that the complaint is about the adequacy of education. It alleges only disability-based discrimination, and does not accuse the school of refusing to provide an education. However, the Court felt that the record was incomplete. Because the courts below applied the incorrect standard, there was no evidence regarding whether or not the Frys invoked IDEA remedies. On remand, the Court holds that the lower court must determine whether the Frys invoked the IDEA’s processes, and if so, how that impacts the gravamen of the complaint.

Rulings

  1. Relief for denial of a FAPE is the only relief available under the IDEA.
  2. When the plaintiff does not seek relief for denial of a FAPE, exhaustion of IDEA remedies is not required.
  3. Courts should look to the gravamen of the complaint to determine what type of relief a plaintiff seeks

Policy & Practice

The exhaustion requirement is designed to prevent courts from making specific decisions on how to educate students from disabilities. However, when a claim is really about discrimination, and not about a FAPE, the Court will show no deference to local agencies and school administrators. Ultimately, schools will get no guaranteed chance to “correct” discrimination prior to a lawsuit, because the Court is already well equipped to prevent and grant relief based on discrimination. Only when a suit is really about a FAPE will the school districts be able to make use of, and plaintiffs be required to take part in, pre-litigation procedures to correct any inadequacies.

Disclaimer:

These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time.  In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.

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