Keywords: IDEA, exhaustion requirement, service animal
E.F. Fry was a student with a disability who was prescribed a service animal to help her perform certain tasks. The school would not let the service animal accompany her to school because her IEP provided for a one-on-one human aid to help her throughout the day. As a result of the school’s decision, E.F.’s parents removed her from the school and began homeschooling. They eventually enrolled her in a private school. The parents brought suit on her behalf under the ADA seeking monetary damages. The Federal District Court granted a motion to dismiss in favor of the school ruling that the exhaustion requirements under IDEA had not been met, which precluded a suit under the ADA. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision.
E.F. Fry has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy which significantly impairs her motor skills and mobility. She was prescribed a service dog and began training it to assist her with physical tasks such as using the toilet and picking up dropped items. In October 2009, E.F.’s school refused to allow her service dog into school with her. The school claimed that because E.F.’s IEP provided for a human aid for one-on-one support, the service dog was not necessary. After a short trial period allowing the dog in school with E.F., the school told the Frys that the dog would not be allowed to accompany her to school the following year.
E.F. was homeschooled the next school year, and her parents filed a complaint on her behalf to the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education (OCRDOE) under the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA). The OCRDOE found that the school had violated the ADA by not allowing the service animal to accompany E.F. at school. Upon enrolling E.F. in private school, the Frys filed suit under the ADA seeking monetary damages. The suit alleged that the school denied E.F. equal access to the facilities; denied E.F. the use of her service animal; interfered with E.F.’s ability to bond with her service animal; denied E.F. the opportunity to interact with other students at her school, and caused psychological harm when they refused to accommodate E.F. as an individual with a disability.
The District Court granted the motion to dismiss in favor of the school district. It ruled that the administrative exhaustion requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) applied to the family’s claims, and must be adhered to before they may proceed to a case under the ADA. This means that the District Court found that the Frys were required to bring suit under the IDEA and exhaust all of their possible remedies before they brought suit under the ADA. The Frys appealed, arguing that the exhaustion requirements under IDEA do not need to be met because they are not seeking relief under the IDEA.
The Sixth Circuit ruled that plaintiffs must exhaust IDEA procedures if they seek relief that is also available under IDEA. Specifically, exhaustion is required when the injury can be remedied through IDEA procedures. The IDEA has procedures for parties to go through if there is a disagreement over the IEP of a child. This process includes preliminary meetings and due process hearings.
The Court determined that the injuries which the Frys sought relief for were educational in nature, which puts them under the jurisdiction of IDEA. The Court pointed to the claim of building a bond with the service dog, stating that the ability for an individual to function more independently outside the classroom is often an educational goal listed in a student’s IEP, placing it squarely within the bounds of IDEA. The Court stated that “educational needs” are not limited to learning the standard academic curriculum, but that an IEP must take into account developmental and functional needs as well.While money damages are not a remedy under the IDEA, the Court ruled that this does not itself excuse the exhaustion requirement. The Court cites Covington v. Knox County School Systems for this determination. In Covington, there were unique circumstances that led to a determination by the Sixth Circuit that the exhaustion requirements were futile. The Court ruled that a plaintiff cannot dodge the IDEA exhaustion requirement by “singlehandedly rendering the dispute moot for purposes of IDEA relief.” While this isn’t exactly the case at hand, the Court felt the Frys were at least somewhat responsible for the inapplicability of IDEA procedures
One of the main policy reasons put forward by the Court for the exhaustion requirement is that it is intended to prevent courts from acting as school administrators and making determinations about the best way to educate students with disabilities. The Court feels these decisions are better suited for individuals in that field. This decision lessens the role of courts in making special education determinations. The Sixth Circuit shows faith that the system, when properly administered, is more likely to come to a better outcome for the child than a court would. Ultimately the Court felt that E.F.’s service animal should be allowed to accompany her in school, but that there are channels in place to achieve that before the ADA may be used.