The IDEA currently requires a parent to “exhaust administrative remedies” before filing a complaint based on another statute, if the parent seeks relief that is available under the IDEA.  In other words, a parent must file an IDEA due process complaint before filing a disability discrimination complaint in federal court under Section 504 or Title II, if the parent seeks relief which can be provided through due process.  In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Fry v. Napoleon Comm. Schs., clarifying when the substance of a complaint does or does not require such exhaustion.  Earlier this month, just over two years after the Supreme Court’s decision, the federal district court issued another decision in the Fry saga.

In Fry, the parents of a student with cerebral palsy and an IEP filed Section 504 and Title II disability discrimination claims in federal district court after the board of education denied their request for the use of a service animal in school. The lower courts held that the parents were first required to exhaust the IDEA administrative process because the violations they claimed were broadly “educational in nature.”  In February 2017, however, the Supreme Court reversed those decisions and ruled in favor of the parents, holding that the exhaustion requirement only applies where the “gravamen,” or essence, of a parent’s complaint is the denial of a free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”).  By contrast, exhaustion is not required where the gravamen of a parent’s complaint is the denial of equal access to school facilities, programs, or services as compared to nondisabled peers, otherwise known as “disability discrimination” under statutes such as Section 504 and Title II.  The Supreme Court’s decision was not the end to litigation, however, as the case was ultimately sent back to the lower federal courts for a determination of whether the gravamen of the parents’ complaint was actually the denial of a FAPE.

The latest district court decision issued following remand found that the parents’ request for the use of a service animal was originally considered and rejected by the student’s PPT, and that the parents made a written request for mediation in light of the PPT’s decision.  However, the parents’ request for the use of a service animal was only considered by the student’s PPT because the school district had a practice of convening a PPT meeting any time a student with an IEP requested an accommodation.  Moreover, it was determined that the parents only requested mediation because the school district’s standard form did not provide any other means of disagreeing with the PPT’s denial of the service animal accommodation.  The parents did not, in fact, disagree with the student’s IEP in general.  Rather, the parents only disagreed with the PPT’s denial of an accommodation allegedly necessary for the student to access school facilities, programs, or services similar to her nondisabled peers.

As such, the district court ultimately determined that, despite the PPT’s involvement and the parents’ request for mediation, the gravamen of the parents’ complaint was disability discrimination under Section 504 and Title II, and not the denial of a FAPE.  The parents, therefore, were not required to exhaust their administrative remedies under the IDEA before proceeding with their Section 504 and Title II claims in federal court. 

It is important for schools to understand that some requests for accommodations, including service animal usage in school, can result in a lawsuit being filed against the school district immediately following the denial, since parents and students may not be required to proceed through the usual mediation and due process procedures, even if the student has an IEP.

Attorneys at Berchem Moses PC are available to consult boards of education regarding regular and special education matters in the State of Connecticut.  For further information, please contact Attorney Michelle Laubin at mlaubin@berchemmoses.com.