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SCOTUS: IDEA Exhaustion Applies Only if Suit is Educational

The U.S. Supreme Court vacated a Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeal’s dismissal of a civil discrimination suit filed against a public school for alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which occurred when the defendants refused to permit E.F., a five-year-old kindergartener with severe cerebral palsy, to bring her service dog into the classroom to assist her. The federal district court dismissed the suit based on failure to exhaust administrative procedures as required in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and the 6th circuit court of appeal affirmed. The Frys, E.F.’s parents, who filed the suit, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and argued that the suit was based on discrimination, and IDEA exhaustion does not apply because it only applies to denial of a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE).

In the suit, the Frys alleged that the defendants knew that E.F. had severe cerebral palsy, and she was assisted by Wonder, her service dog. Wonder retrieved her dropped items, helped balance her on her walker, opened and closed doors, turned on and off lights, transferred her to and from the toilet, etc. The defendants decided that Wonder’s assistance was unnecessary because the school had human assistants to meet all of those needs. The Frys removed E.F. from the public school and began to homeschool her. They also filed a complaint with the office for Civil Rights (OCR), which ruled that the school’s policy did violate E.F.’s civil rights.

The defendants invited E.F. to return to school, but the Frys feared resentment from them, so they enrolled E.F. into a different school that welcomed her and Wonder. They also filed the discrimination suit against the defendants. The defendants moved for dismissal because the Frys did not exhaust IDEA procedures. §1415(L) provides that if a suit is based on denial of a FAPE, the plaintiff must exhaust IDEA procedures. On appeal from the dismissal, the Frys argued that this cause is not educational in nature, so IDEA exhaustions do not apply. This suit involved discrimination by excluding the use of a service dog for a person with a disability in a public facility. The U.S. Supreme Court held that if a discrimination suit could be brought by an adult subjected to the same action in any other public facility, then it may not be educational in nature, and IDEA exhaustion may not apply. The court further held that the deciding factor would be in the original complaint. If the Frys originally addressed the denial of a FAPE, then exhaustion would be required. However, the record was inadequate to make that determination, so the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to the 6th Circuit for that analysis.

See: Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, U.S. 5 Ct. Case no. 15-497 U.S. (Feb. 22, 2017).

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Related legal case

Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools