April 4, 2017
By Arla D. Cahill and Brian M. Block
On February 22, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of a disabled student, Elena, and her family in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, by reversing and remanding the case back to the appellate court. Fry upheld a disabled student’s right to bring a service animal to school. The Court held that it was erroneous for a public school district to require a family to exhaust all legal remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when a child’s right to her service animal is fully supported under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504).
Under the IDEA, when parents disagree with the school regarding any aspect of a disabled student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), the parents are required to “exhaust” their administrative remedies under the IDEA and their state’s due process resolution procedures which, often times, entails lengthy and expensive litigation in multiple levels of adjudication, commencing first with an informal resolution process with the school and escalating to a formal hearing by an administrative agency, followed by appellate review in federal district court. Claims arising under the IDEA also require proof that the school denied the student a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE). Relief available for violations under the IDEA is limited to an award of compensatory education, not monetary damages.
By contrast, the ADA and Section 504 prohibit discriminatory policies, practices and physical barriers that prevent disabled individuals from accessing places of public accommodation on the basis of their disability—significantly, there is no requirement to show that FAPE has been denied under these statutes, no requirement to engage in the lengthy, multi-step process to exhaust administrative remedies, and monetary damages are available in such cases. Thus, the Fry Court held that students with disabilities who are receiving FAPE under the IDEA can still pursue their ADA and Section 504 discrimination claims that do not involve the right to receive FAPE. This ruling is significant in that it resolves a long-held misconception among courts nationwide that students alleging discrimination under the ADA and Section 504 that does not involve FAPE violations must demonstrate compliance with the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement.