February 22, 2017: U.S. Supreme Court Issues Decision In Service Dog/Exhaustion Case

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 8-0 decision that may make it easier for students with disabilities to file lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 immediately, rather than first pursuing claims through the IDEA’s  administrative process.

The decision comes in a case – Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools – that involves E.F., a now-13-year-old student and her service dog, a Goldendoodle named Wonder.  E.F. has cerebral palsy and Wonder was trained to assist her in performing various life activities.  When E.F.’s parents sought permission for Wonder to accompany E.F. to kindergarten, the school district refused to allow the service animal in school.  The school district indicated that E.F. received needed assistance from an individual aide in accordance with E.F.’s IEP.

E.F.’s parents filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), and OCR found that the school district’s exclusion of the service dog violated E.F.’s rights under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Subsequently, the parents filed a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the ADA and Section 504 and sought monetary damages as relief.  The parents did not assert in their suit that the school district violated the IDEA.  The district court dismissed the case, holding that E.F. and her parents were required to exhaust the administrative procedures under the IDEA before filing suit in court.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the dismissal, reasoning that the IDEA’s administrative process applies whenever a plaintiff’s alleged harms are “educational” in nature.

Justice Elena Kagan, in writing for the Court, said exhausting the IDEA’s administrative procedures is not always required when the “gravamen” of a case is something other than the denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The Court suggested that an indication of a case’s gravamen can be revealed by asking two questions: “First, could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school?  Second, could an adult at the school have pressed essentially the same grievance?”  The Court stated that answering “yes” to those questions likely indicates that the gravamen of case is not about the denial of FAPE under the IDEA.

The Court opined that additional fact finding is necessary to determine the gravamen of E.F.’s case (and, consequently, whether E.F. may pursue her case in court without exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative remedies) and sent the case back to the lower district court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools can be found here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-497_p8k0.pdf

Should you have any questions about this decision and its potential impact, do not hesitate to contact us by e-mail or phone (630) 313-4750.