On Feb. 22, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, in which the court defined the circumstances under which parents must first complete all of the administrative hearing requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) before seeking relief in federal court.

The case involved a classified disabled kindergarten student whose parents obtained a service dog for her use.  When her parents sought consent for the service dog to attend kindergarten with the child, the school district, which is in Michigan, refused and instead provided a human aide for the student , determining that the service dog was not needed.  In response, the parents removed the student from the school, eventually sending their child to another school that permitted the service dog.  The parents then sued in federal court alleging a violation of both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, but not the IDEA.

The district sought dismissal of the complaint because the parents did not follow the administrative dispute processes outlined in the IDEA, which requires that parents access the administrative hearing process before resorting to the courts.  The federal district court agreed with the school district and dismissed the complaint.  The parents appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals which also agreed with the position of the school district. The parents then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court found that the district court should conduct an inquiry into whether or not the foundation of the suit was truly about the denial of a free and appropriate education (FAPE) as required by the IDEA, or is about disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA.  If the dispute is truly about the denial of FAPE, then the court will require a plaintiff to complete all of the administrative hearing requirements under the IDEA as a pre-condition of being awarded relief.

In determining whether the foundation of a claim is a violation of the IDEA, the court must answer 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? When the answer to those questions is yes, a complaint that does not expressly allege the denial of a FAPE is also unlikely to be truly about that subject. But when the answer is no, then the complaint probably does concern a FAPE, and administrative hearing requirements of the IDEA would need to be followed prior to filing a complaint in federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court to make further determinations consistent with the standards outlined in the Supreme Court opinion.

Boards of education should consult with their board attorneys concerning what impact, if any, this court opinion may have on their current or pending special education cases.