When “Legal Technicalities” Matter

Written by: Dirk Zuschlag

Primary Source:  Green & Write, March 2, 2017

“First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI reflects a popular sentiment toward lawyers who make the simple complex for their own interest. Only lawyers would take such a technically highfalutin’ issue such as this to the highest court in the land:

Whether 20 U.S.C. 1415(l) requires petitioners to exhaust the state administrative procedures set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA], 20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq., before bringing their civil action seeking money damages for past violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 [ADA], 42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq., and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. 701 et seq.

Yet this is one phrasing of the legal question in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, a seemingly straightforward dispute between a school district and a disabled kindergartener with a service dog. The U.S. Supreme Court answered, “no” in its unanimous ruling last week (here and here). While the decision may settle how courts should deal with a specific interaction of federal education and disability rights laws, it also shows the effect of good lawyers doing good, not only by their clients, but for the commonweal.

Statutes Behaving Exhaustively

Congress has passed several laws intended to protect disabled persons: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The latter establishes an administrative process to remedy alleged violations of a disabled student’s right to a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE).[1] Aggrieved disabled persons may seek broader remedies in federal court for alleged violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

In Smith v. Robinson (1984), the Supreme Court held that the IDEA provided the exclusive legal recourse for a disabled student asserting an education-related claim. Congress in response effectively reversed the Smith interpretation through an IDEA amendment known as the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act (HCPA). However, the HCPA also provides in Section 1415(l) that, where a claim seeks redress “that is also available under [the IDEA],” a plaintiff must first “exhaust”—that is go through—the administrative process before resorting to court. Mandating the exhaustion of non-judicial remedies is generally supposed to efficiently allocate adjudicatory responsibilities and utilize administrative expertise while at the same time conserving judicial resources and avoiding multiple determinations of the same or similar issues.

 A Girl and Her Dog

In 2005, Brent and Stacy Fry adopted an infant orphan from India, Ehlena, who suffers from a severe form of cerebral palsy. In 2009, the Frys acquired a goldendoodle named Wonder as a service dog to help Ehlena, then five years old, balance and move about with mechanical support, open and close doors, pick up dropped items, and use the bathroom. When Ehlena began kindergarten, the local school district cited concerns about students’ fears of or allergies to Wonder, as well as the disruption Wonder was allegedly causing. The district additionally maintained that Wonder was unnecessary because the FAPE provided to Ehlena included a full-time classroom aide. The Fry family argued that Ehlena’s rights involved not the FAPE provided by the school, but Ehlena’s independent access to programs and activities in the school. Despite negotiations and a trial period during which the school limited Wonder’s ability to assist Ehlena, the district ultimately refused to allow Wonder into the school.

Ehlena’s parents withdrew her, and after a period of homeschooling, enrolled her in another school district that accepted Wonder. Meanwhile, in 2012, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights ruled on the Frys’ complaint, finding that the district had violated the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. The Frys brought a suit under both laws for damages.

The federal district court dismissed the lawsuit because the Frys failed to avail themselves of the IDEA administrative process. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed this ruling, thus joining six other regional federal appellate courts (out of eleven) that had addressed the Section 1415(l) exhaustion issue. Only one had sided with the disabled student plaintiff. Still, the Supreme Court accepted the Frys’ appeal.

The Supreme Court Rules

The Court by an 8-0 vote reversed the lower court.[2] In an opinion authored by Justice Kagan, the Court determined that whether the plaintiff had to exhaust the administrative process depended on the legal “gravamen” of her claim, and not on the words she used to state it. The gravamen of a claim is its legal essence or basis in law: what law did the defendant’s wrongful conduct violate, and can the remedy provided by that law correct such a violation? Thus, if the Frys’ underlying complaint is that the district’s prohibition of Wonder denied Ehlena a FAPE, which the IDEA procedures were designed to fix, then exhaustion was required. If instead the Frys are truly claiming a remedy available under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act for the violation of rights secured by those laws, then the IDEA is irrelevant, and they did not have to use its administrative process.

To analyze future case, Justice Kagan stated that courts should consider two questions: (1) could the plaintiff have directly sued if the same alleged conduct occurred but not in a school (for example, in a public library); and, (2) could an adult not a student (for example, an employee) have directly sued if the same alleged conduct occurred in a school? If so, IDEA exhaustion was not likely required. Since Justice Kagan further decided that the entire course of a dispute is a relevant factor for a court to consider, this case itself, with its incomplete record, would be sent back to the lower court for a final determination.

The Fry Court held that the rights of the disabled are mostly independent and cumulative under the three civil rights laws. This result is plainly consistent with the statutory scheme as well as the principles and policies around exhaustion and remedy. Fry shows this too: there is no need to “kill all the lawyers” just yet.

Contact Dirk: zuschla2@msu.edu

[1] Another pending Supreme Court case directly concerns the FAPE requirement: Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, which Green & Write posts discuss here and here.

[2]Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, filed an opinion that both concurred in part with the Court’s opinion and concurred in the Court’s judgment.

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Dirk Zuschlag is a second-year education policy doctoral student. His research interests involve the interaction of teacher professionalism and accountability policies. Prior to entering MSU, Dirk taught public high school social studies for sixteen years and served as a learning coach and staff developer. He also spent thirteen years practicing law earlier in his career. He has a J.D. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Michigan, as well as a B.A. from Duke University.