In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, No. 15-497, 2017 WL 685533 (U.S. Feb. 22, 2017), the United States Supreme Court held that administrative exhaustion under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was unnecessary where the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit was something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee of a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE).
The petitioner, E.F., was a child with a severe form of cerebral palsy who had a trained service dog that assisted her with various activities. When E.F.’s parents sought permission for the service dog to join E.F. in kindergarten, the school officials refused, deciding that the human aide provided as part of E.F.’s individualized education program rendered the dog superfluous. In response, the parents removed E.F. from the school and began homeschooling her. They also filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), claiming that the exclusion of E.F.’s service animal violated her rights under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. OCR agreed, and the school invited E.F. to return to the school with her service dog. However, the parents, concerned about resentment from school officials, enrolled E.F. in another school that welcomed the service dog.
E.F.’s parents then filed suit in federal court against the elementary schools’ local and regional school district and principal, alleging violations of Title II and section 504 and seeking declaratory and monetary relief. Although the lawsuit was not brought under the IDEA, when a suit seeks relief under other federal laws that is also available under the IDEA, the plaintiff must first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures. The district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the suit, holding that E.F.’s parents were required to first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures before filing suit in federal court. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, reasoning that the exhaustion requirement applies whenever a plaintiff’s alleged harms are “educational” in nature. E.F.’s parents appealed that decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court considered the scope of the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement and held that if the remedy sought in suit was not for the denial of a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE), which is the IDEA’s core guarantee, then exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative procedures was not required. In determining whether a plaintiff was seeking relief for the denial of a FAPE, what matters was the “gravamen of the plaintiff’s complaint, setting aside any attempts at artful pleading.” The Court used a failure to provide wheelchair access as an example. The Court stated that although the architectural structure has educational consequences and a lawsuit could allege it violated the IDEA, the gravamen of the complaint is not the denial of a FAPE. The child could file the same basic complaint if a municipal library or theater had no ramps and an employee or visitor could bring the same claim against the school. The Court reasoned, “That the claim can stay the same in those alternative scenarios suggests that its essence is equality of access to public facilities, not adequacy of special education.” Thus, it would not require exhaustion under the IDEA.
However, a plaintiff’s initial pursuit of the IDEA’s administrative remedies can serve as evidence that the gravamen of the later suit is the denial of a FAPE, even though that does not appear on the face of the complaint. Whether or not E.F.’s parents pursued the IDEA’s administrative remedies initially was not addressed by the parties, and the record was not clear on this issue.
Thus, the Court vacated the judgment of the Sixth Circuit and remanded the case for the district court below to establish the gravamen of the complaint. The district court was instructed to consider whether E.F.’s parents invoked the IDEA’s dispute resolution process before bringing suit and, if so, whether their actions revealed that the gravamen of their complaint was indeed the denial of a FAPE, thus necessitating further exhaustion. Simply asking whether the E.F.’s injuries were “ ‘educational’ in nature” was not a sufficient analysis.