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U.S. Supreme Court Rules Unanimously on Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies, Differentiating Section 504 and ADA Claims from IDEA Claims (February 22, 2017)

On February 22, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court set a standard related to the rights of special needs students. The case refers to whether a parent must first use the formal administrative process to "adjudicate" or remedy their educationally-related complaints with a local educational agency (LEA), or whether they may file a lawsuit based on other discrimination claims under Section 504 or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The language within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) compels exhaustion of administrative remedies when a plaintiff seeks "relief" that is "available" under the Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court held in favor of parents. Even though a Section 504 or ADA claim could be related to the student's education, it does not mean a parent must exhaust their administrative remedies under the IDEA, so long as the main focus, or "gravamen" of their complaint is not related to the student being denied a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

The underlying case was about a child in Michigan with Cerebral Palsy who required a service dog in order to appropriately navigate her educational campus. A Michigan school district refused to allow the service dog on campus. The student's parents filed a lawsuit in court for relief from the district's refusal under Section 504 and Title II. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the parents were first required to exhaust their administrative remedies, as required in IDEA claims, prior to filing a suit in court.

The U.S. Supreme Court saw the things differently in this case, and created a two-pronged test to guide a plaintiff's course of action. The High Court indicated that the IDEA's requirement mandating a claimant to exhaust all administrative remedies prior to filing a lawsuit, only applies when the gravamen of the complaint is related to a FAPE denial.

The Court delineated two questions to consider when analyzing a plaintiff's relationship to whether a FAPE denial is being alleged. First, whether the plaintiff/student could assert the same claim against a non-educational public facility; and second, whether another person besides a student could assert the same claim against the district. The Court indicated that if the answer to both questions is yes, it is unlikely that the complaint relates to the provision of FAPE, and therefore, the plaintiff is not necessarily required to exhaust all administrative remedies, as required by the IDEA.

The court provided further guidance stating that the lower courts should look at the substance of the pleadings rather than specific language or labels. If the plaintiff could have filed the same discrimination claims against a separate public entity such as a public library or theater, and likewise, an adult person who is not a student could have filed the same claims against a school district, then there is no relation to an educational impact. Thus, the plaintiff would not be required to exhaust any administrative remedies as they would if they were filing a complaint under the IDEA.

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