Procedural Rights under the IDEA: Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools

“I bet Napoleon regrets getting Fry’s with that!”

For the first time in decades, the United States Supreme Court has heard not one but two cases under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Both of them were plaintiff victories. The second – Endrew F. – is more significant in that for the first time the Court defined what is substantively meant by a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the IDEA, and we will report on that in just a few minutes. The first – the Fry case – was “merely” a procedural victory, and this rarely excites the general public. But as lawyers, we can tell you that substantive rights without procedural rights are no rights at all.

In Fry, a child with severe cerebral palsy (“E.F.”) wanted her prescription service dog Wonder to accompany her to school. The school (“Napoleon”) refused the dog, reasoning that the human aide provided as part of E.F.’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) made Wonder superfluous. [The Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, which was involved in the case, analogized the school’s position to that of requiring a student who uses a wheelchair to be carried by an aide, or a blind student to be guided by a teacher rather than a guide dog.]

E.F.’s parents removed her and began homeschooling her, eventually finding a school that welcomed the dog. E.F. sued Napoleon, alleging violations under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, both anti-discrimination acts applying to both children and adults, both in public schools and other settings.

The school attempted to block the suit because while the IDEA is clear that nothing in the IDEA is to be construed as limiting any rights or remedies under other federal laws, if relief is available under the IDEA, the administrative remedies under the IDEA must be exhausted before going to court. Napoleon was successful with this argument in the lower courts, holding that the Fry’s were required to exhaust IDEA administrative remedies (which they did not do) because the complaint was educational in nature.

The United States Supreme Court (unanimously concurring in the result) vacated the lower court judgments. The Court held that for the plaintiff to be required to exhaust IDEA administrative remedies, the suit must seek relief for the denial of a FAPE (even if it is being brought under a statute other than the IDEA), because that is the only relief available under the IDEA. The Court remanded to the lower courts to determine if the presence of Wonder was relief that an IDEA hearing officer could order as part of an IEP in order to provide E.F. with a FAPE. If not, then the discrimination lawsuit (under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act) has no IDEA relief, and E.F.’s suit against Napoleon can proceed, there having never been any requirement to exhaust IDEA administrative remedies.

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