Under what circumstances does the IDEA's exhaustion requirement apply?
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Act "IDEA" to ensure that all children with disabilities have access to a free appropriate public education "FAPE" that meets their unique needs in the least restrictive environment and prepares them for further education, employment, and independent living.
Exhaustion of claims regarding the denial of a FAPE
Unfortunately, parents of children with disabilities sometimes have to resort to obtaining legal relief on behalf of their children. Disputes between parents and school districts about the provision of a FAPE are subject to due process administrative procedures. In California, these administrative procedures are handled through the Office of Administrative Hearings. Such procedures may include negotiations between the parents and the school district, and if the matter is not resolved, the matter may conclude in a hearing before an administrative law judge. Under the IDEA, only upon the conclusion of these administrative procedures, may a party file a complaint in state or federal court regarding the denial of a FAPE. The IDEA refers to this requirement as "exhaustion".
The IDEA and other disability discrimination statutes protect school children
The IDEA is not the only statute pertaining to children with disabilities in a school setting. For instance, Title II of the ADA and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act overlap with the IDEA.
Title II of the ADA prohibits any pubic entity from disability discrimination;
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits disability discrimination in any program or activity that receives federal funding.
FAPE claims must be exhausted before pursuing ADA or 504 claims
Congress explained in the IDEA how these statutes interact. The IDEA specifies that it does not limit rights available under the U.S. Constitution, the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, or other federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities. However, the exhaustion requirement of the IDEA does not necessarily apply to these other statutes.
The Supreme Court has clarified under what circumstances exhaustion must occur
In a U.S. Supreme Court case, Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, the Court clarified that the exhaustion requirement extends to other types of disability discrimination claims only if the essence of those claims seek relief for a denial of FAPE. To determine whether the claims seek redress of FAPE claims, the Court posed two questions:
Could the claim be brought if the alleged conduct occurred at a public facility that was not a school?; and
Could an adult, such as a visitor or an employee, have pressed essentially the same grievance?
When the answer to those questions is yes, a complaint that does not expressly allege the denial of a FAPE is also unlikely to be truly about FAPE. But when the answer is no, then the complaint probably does concern a FAPE, even if it does not explicitly say so.
The Fry case concerned a child with a severe form of cerebral palsy who relied on a service dog called Wonder to assist her with various life activities. The school district refused to allow her to bring her dog to school, instead offering to provide her with a one-to-one aide human aide. The Frys sued the school district claiming violations of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The lower court dismissed the case for lack of administrative exhaustion.
The attorneys for the school district argued that the case should be dismissed because the student had not exhausted her administrative remedies. In deciding against he school district, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that the Frys were not challenging the school district's provision of educational opportunities. Instead, Wonder assisted the girl in living independently by doing such things as picking up dropped things, turning off lights, helping the girl take off her coat. The Court analogized requiring the girl to use a one-to-one aide instead of Wonder was like requiring a student who uses a wheelchair to be carried around by an aide.
The Court held that exhaustion of the IDEA's administrative procedures is unnecessary where the essence of the plaintiff's suit is something other than the denial of FAPE.
Call a special education attorney to find out how the IDEA's exhaustion requirement may affect your claims.
A California Special eduction attorney