In last week’s high-profile decision, the Supreme Court permitted parents to skip the due process complaint procedures if their claims relate primarily to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), rather than the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (“IDEIA”). The IDEIA requires school districts to provide qualifying students with a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) through specially-designed instruction and related services. Section 504, however, is a more general law prohibiting discrimination and obligating districts to provide equal access to public institutions to all persons with disabilities. In the past, courts have often required dissatisfied parents to exhaust the special education due process procedures, even if their claims related primarily to Section 504, and did not involve FAPE under the IDEIA. In Fry v. Napoleon, however, the Supreme Court rejected this approach and provided new parameters for claims appearing to relate to both laws.

This case features E.F., a middle school student with cerebral palsy and a service dog (a goldendoodle named Wonder). Because the dog helped E.F. with various needs throughout her day (opening doors, retrieving dropped items, etc.), E.F.’s parents wanted Wonder to accompany her to school on a full-time basis. The school refused, citing the one-on-one aide assigned to assist E.F. throughout the day as part of her IEP. After the Office for Civil Rights sided with the parents, the school agreed to allow the dog in school to provide E.F. with assistance during the day. E.F.’s parents, however, were concerned about potential resentment issues, and chose to move their child to a different district. The parents then sued in federal court, alleging that the district violated Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

The lower courts dismissed this lawsuit, noting that – because any alleged harm to E.F. was generally education-related – the parents were first required to file an IDEIA due process complaint before suing in court. The Supreme Court, however, explained that if a lawsuit does not hinge on a FAPE analysis, the hearing officer cannot provide the requested relief, and a due process hearing is not proper – and not necessary.

In determining whether a complaint primarily addresses FAPE, the Court offered the following tests:

  • First, could the plaintiff bring the same claim if the problem took place at any public facility, not just a school?;
  • Next, could any adult at the school have brought the same claim?

Affirmative answers to these inquiries would indicate that the matter is not a true IDEIA claim, and that a due process hearing is unnecessary. The Court also suggested that starting the IDEIA due process, only to drop it later in favor of going to court, could indicate that the conflict was related to FAPE all along. In short, the Court sought to strike a balance between allowing parents to pursue their claims in federal courts and protecting school districts from FAPE complaints disguised as Section 504 allegations. In moving forward, school districts and their attorneys will need to carefully review parents’ claims and factual history before determining the best course of action.

Miriam Pearlmutter is an associate in the Education Services group of Cleveland-based Walter | Haverfield LLP.