The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq., is designed "to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education ["FAPE"]." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). In Fry v. Napoleon Community School, 137 S. Ct. 743 (2017), the Supreme Court examined an IDEA provision which "addresses the Act's relationship with other laws protecting those children." Id. at 748. While the provision does not limit rights under other federal laws, it provides that "if a suit brought under such a law 'seek[s] relief that is also available under' the IDEA, the plaintiff must first exhaust the IDEA's administrative procedures." Id. (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l)).
Under the IDEA, an individualized education program ("IEP") serves as the primary vehicle for providing a child with a FAPE. Id. at 749 (citing Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311 (1988)). If parents are unsatisfied with an IEP, they can file a complaint with the local or state educational agency (as provided by state law) or "may instead (or also) pursue a full-fledged mediation process." Fry, 137 S. Ct. at 749. Next, the parents may seek a due process hearing appealable to a state agency (if originally conducted at the local level). Id. Only after these steps are completed may a parent seek judicial review with a civil action in state or federal court. Id.
In Fry, the petitioner’s condition meant that she required a service dog to help her live as independently as possible. Id. at 751. The dog, "Wonder," performs myriad tasks including "retrieving dropped items, helping her balance when she uses her walker, opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights, helping her take off her coat, [and] helping her transfer to and from the toilet." Id. Under the existing IEP, Wonder was not permitted to accompany petitioner to school with school officials believing that a human aide rendered Wonder superfluous. Id.
After several attempts to change the school's position, the parents filed suit in federal court alleging violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by denying petitioner equal access to the school and its programs, refusing to reasonably accommodate use of a service animal, and otherwise discriminating against petitioner as a person with disabilities. Id. at 752. The complaint was dismissed with the district court holding that the petitioner was required to exhaust IDEA's administrative procedures. Id. A panel from the Sixth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that "§ 1415(l) applies if 'the injuries [alleged in a suit] relate to the specific substantive protections of the IDEA.'" Id. (citing Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., 788 F.3d 622, 625 (6th Cir. 2015)). The panel concluded that because the harms suffered were generally "educational," the petitioner had to exhaust administrative procedures. Id.(citing 788 F.3d at 627).
The Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that because of its primacy in the statutory scheme, a denial of a FAPE is the sine qua non of the IDEA administrative process. Id. at 754. Accordingly, the exhaustion requirement hinges on whether a lawsuit seeks relief for the denial of a FAPE. Id. If the suit sought a remedy which is not for the denial of a FAPE, exhaustion of IDEA's procedures is not required because such procedures "would be useless because a plaintiff could get no relief from those procedures." Id.
In order to identify when a plaintiff seeks relief for the denial of a FAPE, the Court suggested that courts examine whether "the gravamen of a complaint seeks redress for a school's failure to provide a FAPE, even if not phrased or framed in precisely that way." Id. at 755. To assist in making such a determination, the Court offered a pair of hypothetical questions: (1) "could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school—say, a public theater or library?" and (2) "could an adult at the school—say, an employee or visitor—have pressed essentially the same grievance?" Id. at 756. If the answer to these questions is "yes," then the complaint does not seek redress for failure to provide a FAPE because "there is no FAPE obligation and yet the same basic suit could go forward." Id. If the answer to these questions is "no," then the complaint probably concerns a FAPE, "even if it does not explicitly say so" because a FAPE requirement is "all that explains why only a child in the school setting . . . has a viable claim." Id.
Further clues can be found in the history of the proceeding by asking whether "plaintiff has previously invoked the IDEA's formal procedures to handle the dispute." Id. at 757. While not conclusive, prior pursuit of administrative remedies can provide "strong evidence that the substance of a plaintiff's claim concerns the denial of a FAPE." Id. In order to permit the Sixth Circuit panel to conduct this analysis, the Court remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. Id. at 759.
In a brief concurring opinion, Justice Alito expressed concerns with the questions offered by the Court as clues. The questions "make sense only if there is no overlap between the relief available under" the IDEA and other federal laws. Id. (J, Alito, concurring in part and in judgment). Moreover, Justice Alito questioned using the history of the proceeding because "[i]t is easy to imagine circumstances under which parents might start down the IDEA road and then change course and file an action under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act that seeks relief that the IDEA cannot provide." Id. Accordingly, while concurring in the judgment, Justice Alito felt that the Court's clues may "confuse and lead courts astray." Id.