United States: SCOTUS Service Dog Decision Could Spell Bad News For Schools

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that a disabled child's parents were not legally required to jump through certain additional hoops and exhaust administrative remedies in a service animal dispute before suing a school for damages under federal antidiscrimination law. This is a concerning decision for schools and school districts, as it will likely lead to an increase in lawsuits (Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools).

What Is "Administrative Exhaustion?"

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) is a federal law that obligates public schools to make "free appropriate public education" available to all students with disabilities. Those wishing to bring a claim under the statute must exhaust their administrative remedies if they seek "relief that is also available" under IDEA, even if they do not include IDEA claims in their complaint.

Essentially, the statute requires plaintiffs to follow the IDEA's due process administrative hearing procedures before filing suit when the injuries alleged can be remedied through IDEA or when the injuries relate to specific substantive protections of the IDEA.

Show Me The Money: But How Do I Get There?

In 2009, Stacy and Brent Fry procured a golden doodle service dog named Wonder for their daughter E.F., then five years old, who suffers from cerebral palsy. The Napoleon School District refused to allow E.F. to bring Wonder to school because E.F. already had a human aide who could provide the same or similar services as Wonder.

District representatives and the family's attorneys met and agreed to allow E.F. to bring Wonder to school on a trial basis. However, the District limited Wonder's activities such that he was not allowed to go with E.F. to recess, lunch, or to the bathroom. The trial period ended, and the school district decided that Wonder was no longer allowed to accompany E.F. to school.

In response, the Frys home-schooled E.F. for two years, then enrolled her in a neighboring county's elementary school that welcomed both E.F. and Wonder with open arms.  

Fry's Case: Straight To Court

In December 2012, the Frys filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging that the District's refusal to allow Wonder to accompany E.F. to school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act. They sought emotional distress damages for the alleged harms that the District's decision to prohibit Wonder at school inflicted upon E.F.

The family did not contend that E.F could not learn as well with a human aide, or that E.F. suffered any educational harm that can be addressed in IDEA. Instead, they argued that E.F. was less independent at school without Wonder and was humiliated by the dog's absence (for example, having to use the toilet with the door to the stall open and several adults watching).

The school claimed that the Frys could not take their case directly to federal court, arguing that they were first legally required to exhaust state administrative proceedings under the IDEA because they were asking for damages that "may be obtained" through the IDEA's administrative proceedings. For example, a hearing officer could award "retroactive reimbursement" for the costs of homeschooling E.F., which the District argues is similar, if not the same, as the damages sought by the family.

Similarly, to the extent the Frys asked the court to compensate them for E.F.'s lost independence, the District claimed that a court could likely calculate these damages by looking to tutoring and therapy costs necessary to help E.F. catch up, which would be similar to the basis for a compensatory education award under the IDEA.

The family responded by arguing that they are not required to exhaust administrative remedies because they sought relief that has nothing to do with E.F.'s education and is not available under the IDEA – emotional distress damages for the "social and emotional" harms that E.F. suffered from not having Wonder at school. The Frys also argued that exhausting their administrative remedies would be a futile process – they had already placed E.F. in a different school, did not want her Individualized Education Program (IEP) changed, and did not want any alternate services. The Frys were interested in obtaining a monetary award for E.F.'s emotional distress, period.  

Lower Court Proceedings: Not So Fast

The trial court dismissed the family's case, ruling that the Frys should have exhausted all possible administrative remedies under the IDEA before they filed their lawsuit. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit agreed and upheld the dismissal.

The lower courts held that seeking monetary damages, a remedy unavailable under the IDEA, is not enough to excuse exhaustion. Otherwise, they reasoned, plaintiffs could easily evade exhaustion by simply stating a monetary demand for relief. The courts also pointed out that going through the necessary IDEA procedures would have generated a helpful administrative record that could have been used as guidance in evaluating the case for compensatory damages, even if the administrative process would not have squarely addressed the Fry's concerns.

SCOTUS Decision: Come On In

In a majority opinion drafted by Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court agreed with the Frys that the family was not required to exhaust administrative remedies under IDEA before suing. The Court reasoned that "exhaustion is not necessary" in this case because the substance of the family's lawsuit was not based on an alleged denial of free appropriate education under the IDEA.

The unanimous opinion instructs lower courts to "look to the substance, or gravamen" of a disability discrimination lawsuit when determining whether exhaustion is required. "That examination," Justice Kagan said, "should consider substance, not surface." If the substance is not focused on whether a "free appropriate education" was provided, no exhaustion will be required. The Court directed lower courts not to base their decisions on whether the complaint uses or omits "magic word" phrases like "free appropriate education" or "individualized education program."

The Court provided a "clue" to help determine whether the gravamen of a complaint against a school is sufficient to require exhaustion, recommending that a pair of hypothetical questions be asked:

First, 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 second, could an adult at the school – say, an employee or visitor – have pressed essentially the same grievance?

If the answers to both questions are "no," then it is likely that the complaint concerns a free appropriate education, and therefore necessitates administrative exhaustion. In the Fry's case, the Court remanded the case and asked the lower court to reexamine their specific situation for a further determination about the substance of their complaint.

What This Means For Schools: Time Will Tell

The impact of this decision for schools and school districts could be significant. An increase in federal lawsuits is quite likely. Rather than just initiating IDEA due process procedures,  attorneys representing students could now use a simple strategic pleading strategy (i.e. tacking on a request for monetary damages in a complaint) to commence a federal lawsuit at the same time IDEA due process is initiated. In so doing, school districts would be in the position of defending in two separate forums on the same issue, based on a technical distinction of potential relief.

It remains to be seen whether students and their parents will rush to court instead of, or in addition to, pursuing an IDEA due process claim. Theoretically, parents should still want to utilize the IDEA's administrative procedures as a quicker means to resolve disputes involving educational accommodations for their children. Now, however, the question emerges as to whether the added specter of a simultaneous federal lawsuit for monetary damages could create a change in how school districts approach handling and resolving these cases. Of further interest is how this decision may impact day-to-day determinations of what constitutes a "free appropriate education" under the IDEA given the added ADA exposure faced by public schools.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions