Does the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act of 1986 require exhaustion of state administrative remedies when claims seeking monetary damages are made under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act?
The Supreme Court will decide whether the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act of 1986 exhaustion requirement applies when a party brings a suit under the American with Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act if the plaintiff is seeking a remedy not contemplated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). The parties disagree on how to interpret Section 1415(l) of the IDEA and whether the IDEA is even implicated here. Stacy and Brent Fry posit that the plain text and purpose of the IDEA make it so monetary damages are not recoverable under the IDEA and thus neither exhaustion nor the IDEA should apply here. In response, Napoleon Community Schools et al. argues that the text and purpose of the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement require that substantively-the-same claims be exhausted before going to court. Depending on the how the Court rules, the ease of access to courts could be altered, thus impacting the role of school-related administrative proceedings.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
The Handicapped Children's Protection Act of 1986 (HCPA), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l), requires exhaustion of state administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for non-IDEA actions "seeking relief that is also available under" the IDEA. The question presented, on which the circuits have persistently disagreed, is:
Whether the HCPA commands exhaustion in a suit, brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, that seeks damages—a remedy that is not available under the IDEA.
Petitioners Stacy and Brent Fry are the parents of E.F., a minor, who was born with cerebral palsy. See Fry, et al. v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., et al., No. 14-1137, 2 (6th Cir. Jun. 12, 2015). E.F. was prescribed a service dog in 2008 to aid her with everyday tasks. See id. This service dog, named Wonder, helps E.F. with specific physical tasks as well as increasing her overall mobility. See id. Once Wonder's training was complete, E.F.'s school, Ezra Eby Elementary School, refused to allow Wonder to accompany E.F. to school because she received a human aide as part of the designed Individualized Education Program, thus the school felt a service dog was unnecessary. See id. at 3.
In January 2010, the school reconvened and confirmed their decision to prohibit Wonder from accompanying E.F. to school. See Fry, No. 14-1137. Later, however, the school put in place a trial period for Wonder until the end of the 2010 school year. See id. Even during this trial period, Wonder was not permitted to accompany E.F. at all times or perform all duties he had been trained for. See id. At the end of the trial period, the school informed the Frys that Wonder would not be allowed to accompany E.F. in the upcoming school year. See id.
The Frys subsequently began to homeschool E.F. and filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. See Fry, No. 14-1137 at 3. In 2012, the Office of Civil Rights found that the school's actions were in violation of the ADA, and the school agreed to allow E.F. to attend school with Wonder. See id. The Frys, however, enrolled her in a different school and filed suit against the school for denial to accommodate Wonder between fall of 2009 and spring of 2012 under Title II of the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (the district court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claim). See id. at 3–4.
In January 2014, the district court dismissed the case on the grounds that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act's (IDEA) exhaustion requirements applied to the Frys' case and that the Frys had not fulfilled those requirements. See Fry, No. 14-1137 at 4. The Frys appealed to the Sixth Circuit, and the Sixth Circuit agreed that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement applies to the Frys See id. at 5. The Frys then petitioned to the Supreme Court and the Court agreed to hear the case.
WHAT IS THE PROPER INTERPRETATION OF SECTION 1415(l) OF THE INDIVIDUALS WITH DISABILITIES EDUCATION ACT ("IDEA")?
THE PLAIN TEXT
The Frys argue that Congress specifically addressed exhaustion requirements under the IDEA when it adopted the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act of 1986 (“HCPA”). See Brief for Petitioners, Stacy and Brent Fry at 51. The Frys asserts that the HCPA requires exhaustion of only administrative remedies that the plaintiff is seeking as part of the civil action and not exhaustion of all available administrative remedies. See id. at 32, 51. The Frys contend that the plain language of the IDEA’s Section 1415(l) requires exhaustion only when a claim seeks relief also available under the IDEA. See id. at 37–38. Although the IDEA provides broad relief when school districts have failed to provide appropriate services, the Frys argue that the statute does not authorize the recovery of monetary damages. See id. at 24. According to the Frys, because the text of 1415(l) calls for exhaustion “before the filing of a civil action under such laws seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA],” the IDEA exhaustion requirements do not apply where a plaintiff seeks a non-IDEA remedy, unless the plaintiff also specifically asks for relief under the IDEA. See id. at 22–24. Because monetary damages are not offered under the IDEA, the Frys contend that the plain text of 1415(l) does not require exhaustion given their specific circumstance—even if there is still an opportunity to file a complaint to initiate and administrative hearing. See id. at 36.
Napoleon Community Schools et al. (“the school”) counters, arguing that the meaning of the text of Section 1415(l) supports an application of the exhaustion requirement where plaintiffs seek relief that is in substance available through administrative proceedings under the IDEA. See Brief for Respondents, Napoleon Community Schools et al. at 18. The school notes that Section 1415(l) has simple language that requires that prior to a plaintiff’s filing a claim for relief, the plaintiff must exhaust the relief that is available under the IDEA. See id. The school articulates the differences between substance of remedy and form of remedy, arguing that substance of the remedy must be different in order to bypass the exhaustion requirement. See id. The school notes that if the substance of relief is available under the IDEA, the IDEA’s procedures must be exhausted and that a plaintiff cannot circumvent this by arguing for relief in a form that the IDEA does not provide. See id. Therefore, the school argues that allowing circumvention of the exhaustion requirement by changing the form of damages would conflict with the plain text of Section 1415(l) because the IDEA provides substantively the same relief via administrative proceedings. See id. at 17–18. The school points to the word “relief” in the statute, suggesting that the plain meaning of the word includes any remedy available by way of the courts, regardless of the form. See id. at 19–20.
THE PURPOSE OF THE IDEA
In addition, to further support their interpretation of Section 1415(l), the Frys argue that when Congress adopted the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act, it affirmed the viability of other federal statutes which protect the rights of handicapped students when the requested relief is unavailable under the IDEA. See Brief for Petitioners at 35–36. Thus, the Frys posit that the purpose of the statute is to expand access to federal courts for children with disabilities bringing rights violation claims and that not allowing the Frys to bring their claim in court would frustrate this purpose. See id. at 37.
The school presents the exhaustion requirement as a means of requiring the participation of the parties in a cooperative process in which the parties work to address the needs of the child. See Brief for Respondents at 27. The school argues that this cooperation enables contributions from parents, teachers, and education officials to combine to best serve the child. See id. 27. Furthermore, the school maintains that the part of the purpose of Section 1415(l) was to prevent parents from circumventing due process procedures available under the IDEA by filing a claim under a different disability statute. See id. at 25–26.
IS THE IDEA'S EXHAUSTION REQUIREMENT EVEN IMPLICATED?
The Frys argue that the IDEA authorizes hearing officers to grant relief only if the alleged violation deprived the child of educational benefits, thus denying the child of a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”). See Brief for Petitioners at 24. They claim that because they seek damages for violations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA, which are distinct from the IDEA, the case does not involve the denial of a FAPE. See id. at 25–27. Further, the Frys argue that it would be futile to exhaust an administrative proceeding when they do not challenge that a FAPE was provided and are seeking monetary relief that is not available under the IDEA. See id. at 24, 31. Because their complaint seeks redress for harm to E.F. that does not even require a showing of educational deprivation, but instead centers around harm related to E.F.’s disability unrelated to her role as a student, the Frys contend that the IDEA is not implicated. See id. at 47–48.
The school contends that just because there is no claim of an IDEA violation does not mean that relief is unavailable under the IDEA. See Brief for Respondents at 40. The school argues that accepting the Frys’ argument would enable parents to avoid IDEA procedures merely by making their own determination that the IDEA procedures would be ineffective. See id. The school insists that in order to determine whether the IDEA is implicated, a court needs to look at the substance of the claim and should hold that the plaintiff must exhaust any available IDEA remedies if the plaintiff could have brought the suit under the IDEA, even if the requested remedies take a different form than those available under the IDEA. See id. at 19, 23.
DOES THE IDEA’S EXHAUSTION REQUIREMENT DEPRIVE EASE OF ACCESS TO THE COURTS?
The National Disability Rights Network et al. (“NDRN”), in support of the Frys, argues that the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation of the HCPA is unnecessarily broad due to the fact that it would deprive E.F. of civil rights that are guaranteed to all citizens. See Brief of Amici Curiae National Disability Rights Network et al. (“NDRN”), in Support of Petitioners, at 10. These civil rights, the NDRN asserts, are the rights of citizens to secure justice and rights of redress. See id. The NDRN argues that by impeding the Frys’ access to courts, this interpretation is in danger of directly contravening the well-established national values regarding the rights guaranteed to all citizens. See id. at 11. Furthermore, the NDRN claims that a requirement to exhaust all available administrative remedies under the IDEA would delay children’s ability to get justice, which is a struggle unique to children with disabilities. See id. at 12. Professor Thomas Heir, in support of the Frys, further argues that the parents of children with disabilities in general have little incentives to bypass the IDEA’s administrative process other than to seek relief that is not provided by the IDEA, which is the relief in question in this case. See Brief of Amici Curiae Professor Thomas Hehir, Professor Melody B. Musgrove, and Madeleine Will, in Support of Petitioners, at 13. The parents of disabled children, he notes, rarely have the incentive to go to court at all, and those cases involve parents who have made efforts to go through other means before going through the courts. See id. at 16. Thus, the NDRN and Professor Hehir together argue that courts should be available to plaintiffs like the Frys and that there would unlikely be abuse. See Brief of NDRN at 10; Brief of Professor Thomas Hehir at 12
The National School Boards Association et al. (“NSBA”), in support of the school, however, asserts that allowing the Frys to bypass the IDEA’s exhaustion requirements would essentially undermine Congress’s established framework for resolving matters related to children with disabilities such as E.F. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National School Boards Association et al. ("NSBA") at 11. By allowing parents to bring claims such as those brought by the Frys without fulfilling the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement, they argue that the IEP due process system and the collaborative framework Congress has established between parents and schools would be undermined. See id. at 12. The NSBA points to due process hearings held by hearing officers who are specially trained and qualified to meet IDEA requirements. See id. at 19–21. The NSBA also asserts that the administrative record developed during this due process hearing can also assist courts later on in the case that the parties request further review. See id. at 21. If the Sixth Circuit’s decision is reversed, the NSBA argues that the role of those specialized to deal with such claims would be removed to courts that lack the specific knowledge often required in these claims. See id. at 12, 21.
- Pete Wright, Fry v. Napoleon Comm. Sch. Dist. Family Appeals Decisions in Discrimination Case to Supreme Court, Wright’s Law (June 28, 2016).
- Sam Hananel, SCOTUS Agrees to Hear Case Involving Service Dog at School, U.S. News & World Report U.S. News (June 28, 2016).
- Christina Samuels Supreme Court Seeks Input on Special Education Service Animal Case, Education Week Education Week (January 19, 2016)