Episode Five: Update on the Goldendoodle Case: Fry v. Napoleon

Here’s our update on the Supreme Court’s decision in Fry v. Napoleon, the case looking at whether parents need to go through the special education hearing process or can go straight to federal court when they have a conflict with their child’s school. Turns out that it depends on the central issue in the dispute: Is the conflict about special education services or one relating to disability in general?

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Miriam: Welcome to Education Law Update, the podcast that entertains and informs. I’m Miriam.

Lisa: I’m Lisa.

Miriam: We are Ohio attorneys. We practice school law and we get together every so often and we talk about the latest legal developments that affect anybody in this school, school districts, board members, administrators, anyone who works with the schools.

Lisa: Today we’re back updating you on one of the Supreme Court cases we talked about in an earlier episode, Fry v. Napoleon. If you remember this one, it’s focused on exhaustion and when districts needed to go through the IDEA administrative process before a claim could be filed straight in court under say section five or four or the ADA.

Miriam: The Supreme Court made its decision.

Lisa: Yes. The Supreme Court has decided actually a little earlier than we expected and did lean the direction we somewhat suspected in that there will be some exceptions to when this exhaustion rule is going to be required.

Miriam: Just a quick refresher for those of us who forgot Fry versus Napoleon, this is the case about the little girl. She had cerebral palsy and she wanted to bring her golden doodle dog to school to help her with all kinds of tasks, opening doors, helping her with her code, turning the lights on and off. The district said, no, because you already have a person assigned to you to do that. You don’t need the dog. The parents went straight to court and asked for money. They did not go through the typical standards of special education process that usually happens when parents and schools disagree about children’s services.

The question here that the court was looking at is when are parents allowed to do that? Are they ever allowed to do that in these kinds of blended cases that are about schools and are about children, but maybe aren’t exactly about educational services?

Lisa: If you remember back, the parents claimed that they really weren’t making any claims or arguments about the child services, special education services, anything that would really fall under the IDEA. Basically, they were saying, “Yes, she got a free appropriate public education. We’re solely suing under section 504 in the ADA because you denied my child access with her service animal.”

Lisa: You discriminated against my child when you did that.

Lisa: Because remember section 504 in ADA focus on discrimination claims, which often for special education students do overlap with the IDEA. That’s why this became such an issue in the first place because you can remember back to our discussion about the concern about going straight to court and it’s more expensive and there are some more options for remedies under the 504 and ADA for like a cash payment. The ramifications of avoiding the exhaustion under IDEA could be pretty big for school districts. There was some concern there about where the court would go.

Basically, just to bring you back, they are saying there are some exceptions, but they are trying to make it clear for the lower courts that it’s not just, “we’re getting rid of the exhaustion rule.”

Miriam: The court decided this, the court ruled in favor of the parents and said that, in some cases, you don’t have to go through these special education due process requirements. You can just go right to court and in trying to make the distinction when you can and when you can’t, the court is here giving us some tests to figure out whether the parent’s claims are actually about educational services and relate to the child’s school or if they are just general disability claims.

Lisa: The first question that they posed which should be pretty helpful for lower courts is, could the plaintiff, in this case, bring up the same type of claim if the problem took place in any public facility other than a school? If the same thing happened at the public library, would they still have the same type of claim? If so, then the court says, that might be a good factor to show. This is not about FAPE, this is not about the IDEA, exhaustion may not apply here.

Miriam: Exactly. If the same kind of claim can be brought about a service dog, for example, in the library, then that means it’s irrelevant that this is happening in a school because it could have happened anywhere else. It’s not about education if it could have happened in any other public facility.

Lisa: Then they also drive the point home with their second question that the courts could pose is could any adult at the school have brought the same claim? If I’m a teacher at the school, could I have made the same type of claim because you denied the accommodation that I needed, which obviously as a teacher I’m not being educated. It’s not an issue of a free appropriate public education.

Miriam: Exactly. Under the ADA, under the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504, I’m sure our audience knows school districts have to accommodate anybody who walks in the door. That can be a parent, a visitor, a volunteer. If one of those individuals needs a service animal, for example, or any other accommodation, the school district is obligated to provide it, even though, like you said, Lisa, there’s no educational services involved. This is just the second example, the second test that the Supreme Court offered us.

Lisa: Basically, if your answer is yes to these questions, then that would indicate that the matter is not a true IDEA claim, no matter how it was phrased or artfully crafted in the complaint and that exhaustion would not necessarily be required.

Miriam: Here’s another interesting thing that the court mentioned. Here I think the court is looking to the parents to see what they actually did. Sometimes parents will start with a due process claim. They will start as if it was an educational service question conflict, and then they will switch over to the court before that process is finished and they’ll just ask for money.

Lisa: The court said if you have filed a past claim under IDEA, that’s going to be a nice red flag for the court that you are going to have to exhaust just because you dismissed it and changed your mind and then went to court.

Miriam: The court here is trying to avoid those parents that are trying to game the system and trick school districts. I think this is a very important case for school districts because it means that potentially many more parents can be going right to Federal Court and asking for money. Of course, each individual situation has to be assessed on its own merits. School districts and their attorneys will need to carefully review parent’s claims and in the factual history before deciding on the best course of action with their lawyers.

Miriam: Lisa and I hope that you really enjoyed this podcast and that you will give us a high rating. You’ll rate as well on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcast from. If you look at the notes for this show, you’ll see our email. Please drop us a line. Let us know what you thought and let us know what other topics you’d like to see discussed on this show. Have a great day.

Recorded: The content of this podcast is provided for general information purposes only. The podcast is not legal advice, does not create an attorney-client relationship and should not be relied upon in making legal decisions. Actions on legal matters should be taken only upon advice of legal counsel. Walter Haverfield does not guarantee the accuracy of the information contained in the podcast.

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