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IDEA Administrative Exhaustion Requirement

Under the IDEA, a parent must complete all administrative procedures before filing a complaint under another statute, if the relief sought can be obtained through IDEA processes. Put simply, before pursuing a disability discrimination claim under Section 504 or Title II in federal court, a parent must first file an IDEA due process complaint. In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed this issue in Fry v. Napoleon Comm. Schs., providing clarification on when exhaustion of administrative remedies is required based on the substance of the complaint. Recently, just over two years since the Supreme Court’s ruling, a federal district court issued another decision in the ongoing Fry case.

Fry v. Napoleon Comm. Schs.

In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, the parents of a student with cerebral palsy and an Individualized Education Program (IEP) filed federal disability discrimination claims under Section 504 and Title II after their request for their child to use a service animal at school was denied by the board of education. Initially, lower courts ruled that the parents must first exhaust the administrative process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) because their claims primarily concerned educational matters.

However, in February 2017, the Supreme Court overturned these rulings, siding with the parents. The Court clarified that the exhaustion requirement applies only when the core of the complaint involves the denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE). When the essence of the complaint is the denial of equal access to school facilities, programs, or services compared to non-disabled peers (termed “disability discrimination” under Section 504 and Title II), exhaustion of IDEA procedures is not necessary. Despite the Supreme Court’s decision, the litigation continued as the case was remanded to lower courts to determine whether the heart of the parents’ complaint was indeed the denial of a FAPE.

A Subsequent Decision

The most recent district court decision issued after remand found that initially, the parents’ request to use a service animal was considered and turned down by the student’s PPT. Subsequently, upon the school district’s practice of convening a PPT meeting whenever a student with an IEP requested an accommodation, the parents’ request for a service animal was reconsidered.

The court also determined that the parents sought mediation because the school district’s standard form did not offer any other way to contest the PPT’s decision to deny the service animal accommodation. Importantly, the parents’ disagreement was solely with the PPT’s denial of an accommodation they believed necessary for the student to have similar access to school facilities, programs, or services as her peers without disabilities.

Therefore, the district court concluded that despite the involvement of the PPT and the parents’ request for mediation, the core of the parents’ complaint centered on disability discrimination under Section 504 and Title II, rather than the denial of a FAPE. Consequently, the parents were not obliged to complete the administrative procedures under the IDEA before pursuing their claims under Section 504 and Title II in federal court.

It’s crucial for schools to recognize that certain accommodation requests, such as the use of service animals in school, can prompt immediate legal action against the school district following denial. This can occur even if the student has an IEP, bypassing standard mediation and due process procedures.

Maya Murphy P.C. has proudly been included in the 2024 Edition of Best Law Firms®, ranked among the top firms in the nation. In addition, Managing Partner Joseph C. Maya has been selected to The Best Lawyers in America® 2024 for his work in Employment Law and Education Law in Connecticut. Recognition in Best Lawyers® is awarded to firms and attorneys who demonstrate excellence in the industry and is widely regarded by both clients and legal professionals as a significant honor.

Our firm in Westport, Connecticut serves clients with legal assistance all over the state, including the towns of Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Bethany, Bethel, Branford, Bridgeport, Brookfield, Cheshire, Danbury, Darien, Derby, East Haven, Easton, Fairfield, Greenwich, Guilford, Hamden, Madison, Meriden, Middlebury, Milford, Monroe, Naugatuck, New Canaan, New Fairfield, New Haven, Newton, North Branford, North Haven, Norwalk, Orange, Oxford, Prospect, Redding, Ridgefield, Seymour, Shelton, Sherman, Southbury, Stamford, Stratford, Trumbull, Wallingford, Waterbury, West Haven, Weston, Westport, Wilton, and Woodbridge. In addition to assisting clients in Connecticut, our firm handles education law matters in New York as well.

If you have any questions or would like to speak to an attorney about a legal matter, please contact Joseph C. Maya and the other experienced attorneys at Maya Murphy, P.C. at (203) 221-3100 or JMaya@Mayalaw.com to schedule a free initial consultation today.