STACY FRY, et vir, as next friends of minor E. F., PETITIONERS
NAPOLEON COMMUNITY SCHOOLS, ET AL.
October 31, 2016
OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) offers
federal funds to States in exchange for a commitment to
furnish a "free appropriate public education"
(FAPE) to children with certain disabilities, 20 U.S.C.
§1412(a)(1)(A), and establishes formal administrative
procedures for resolving disputes between parents and schools
concerning the provision of a FAPE. Other federal statutes
also protect the interests of children with disabilities,
including Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act
(ADA) and §504 of the Rehabilitation Act. In Smith
v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992, this Court considered the
interaction between those other laws and the IDEA, holding
that the IDEA was "the exclusive avenue" through
which a child with a disability could challenge the adequacy
of his education. Id., at 1009. Congress responded
by passing the Handicapped Children's Protection Act of
1986, overturning Smith's preclusion of non-IDEA
claims and adding a carefully defined exhaustion provision.
Under that provision, a plaintiff bringing suit under the
ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, or similar laws "seeking
relief that is also available under [the IDEA]" must
first exhaust the IDEAs administrative procedures.
Petitioner E. F. is a child with a severe form of cerebral
palsy; a trained service dog named Wonder assists her with
various daily life activities. When E. F.'s parents,
petitioners Stacy and Brent Fry, sought permission for Wonder
to join E. F. in kindergarten, officials at Ezra Eby
Elementary School refused. The officials reasoned that the
human aide provided as part of E. F.'s individualized
education program rendered the dog superfluous. In response,
the Frys removed E. F. from Ezra Eby and began homeschooling
her. They also Syllabus filed a complaint with the Department
of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), claiming
that the exclusion of E. F.'s service animal violated her
rights under Title II and §504. OCR agreed, and school
officials invited E. F. to return to Ezra Eby with Wonder.
But the Frys, concerned about resentment from school
officials, instead enrolled E. F. in a different school that
welcomed the service dog. The Frys then filed this suit in
federal court against Ezra Eby's local and regional
school districts and principal (collectively, the school
districts), alleging that they violated Title II and
§504 and seeking declaratory and monetary relief. The
District Court granted the school districts' motion to
dismiss the suit, holding that §1415(Z) required the
Frys to first exhaust the IDEA's administrative
procedures. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that
§1415(Z) applies whenever a plaintiffs alleged harms are
"educational" in nature.
1. Exhaustion of the IDEA's administrative procedures is
unnecessary where the gravamen of the plaintiffs suit is
something other than the denial of the IDEA's core
guarantee of a FAPE. Pp. 9-18.
(a) The language of §1415(Q compels exhaustion when a
plaintiff seeks "relief that is "available"
under the IDEA. Establishing the scope of §1415(Z),
then, requires identifying the circumstances in which the
IDEA enables a person to obtain redress or access a benefit.
That inquiry immediately reveals the primacy of a FAPE in the
statutory scheme. The IDEA's stated purpose and specific
commands center on ensuring a FAPE for children with
disabilities. And the IDEA's administrative procedures
test whether a school has met this obligation: Any decision
by a hearing officer on a request for substantive relief
"shall" be "based on a determination of
whether the child received a free appropriate public
education." §1415(f)(3)(E)(i). Accordingly,
§1415(Q's exhaustion rule hinges on whether a
lawsuit seeks relief for the denial of a FAPE. If a lawsuit
charges such a denial, the plaintiff cannot escape
§1415(Z) merely by bringing the suit under a statute
other than the IDEA. But if the remedy sought in a suit
brought under a different statute is not for the denial of a
FAPE, then exhaustion of the IDEA's procedures is not
required. Pp. 9-13.
(b) In determining whether a plaintiff seeks relief for the
denial of a FAPE, what matters is the gravamen of the
plaintiffs complaint, setting aside any attempts at artful
pleading. That inquiry makes central the plaintiffs own
claims, as §1415(Q explicitly requires in asking whether
a lawsuit in fact "seeks" relief available under
the IDEA. But examination of a plaintiffs complaint should
consider substance, not surface: §1415(Q requires
exhaustion when 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. In ad- dressing whether a
complaint fits that description, a court should attend to the
diverse means and ends of the statutes covering persons with
disabilities. The IDEA guarantees individually tailored
educational services for children with disabilities, while
Title II and §504 promise nondiscriminatory access to
public institutions for people with disabilities of all ages.
That is not to deny some overlap in coverage: The same
conduct might violate all three statutes. But still, these
statutory differences mean that a complaint brought under
Title II and §504 might instead seek relief for simple
discrimination, irrespective of the IDEA's FAPE
obligation. One clue to the gravamen of a complaint can come
from asking a pair of hypothetical questions. 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? Second, could an adult at the school have
pressed essentially the same grievance? When the answer to
those questions is yes, a complaint that does not expressly
allege the denial of a FAPE is also unlikely to be truly
about that subject. But when the answer is no, then the
complaint probably does concern a FAPE. A further sign of the
gravamen of a suit can emerge from the history of the
proceedings. Prior pursuit of the IDEA's administrative
remedies may provide strong evidence that the substance of a
plaintiffs claim concerns the denial of a FAPE, even if the
complaint never explicitly uses that term. Pp. 13-18.
2. This case is remanded to the Court of Appeals for a proper
analysis of whether the gravamen of E. F.'s complaint
charges, and seeks relief for, the denial of a FAPE. The
Frys' complaint alleges only disability-based
discrimination, without making any reference to the adequacy
of the special education services E. F.'s school
provided. Instead, the Frys have maintained that the school
districts infringed E. F.'s right to equal access-even if
their actions complied in full with the IDEA's
requirements. But the possibility remains that the history of
these proceedings might suggest something different. The
parties have not addressed whether the Frys initially pursued
the IDEA's administrative remedies, and the record is
cloudy as to the relevant facts. On remand, the court below
should establish whether (or to what extent) the Frys invoked
the IDEA's dispute resolution process before filing suit.
And if the Frys started down that road, the court should
decide whether their actions reveal that the gravamen of
their complaint is indeed the denial of a FAPE, thus
necessitating further exhaustion. Pp. 18-20.
788 F.3d 622, vacated and remanded.
J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C.
J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, JJ.,
joined. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and
concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS, J., joined.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA or Act), 84
Stat. 175, as amended, 20 U.S.C. §1400 et seq.,
ensures that children with disabilities receive needed
special education services. One of its provisions,
§1415(Z), addresses the Act's relationship with
other laws protecting those children. Section 1415(Z) makes
clear that nothing in the IDEA "restrict[s] or limit[s]
the rights [or] remedies" that other federal laws,
including antidiscrimination statutes, confer on children
with disabilities. At the same time, the section states 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 IDEAs administrative procedures. In this
case, we consider the scope of that exhaustion requirement.
We hold that exhaustion is not necessary when the gravamen of
the plaintiff's suit is something other than the denial
of the IDEAs core guarantee-what the Act calls a "free
appropriate public education." §1412(a)(1)(A).
IDEA offers federal funds to States in exchange for a
commitment: to furnish a "free appropriate public
education"-more concisely known as a FAPE-to all
children with certain physical or intellectual disabilities.
Ibid.; see §1401(3)(A)(i) (listing covered
disabilities). As defined in the Act, a FAPE comprises
"special education and related services"-both
"instruction" tailored to meet a child's
"unique needs" and sufficient "supportive
services" to permit the child to benefit from that
instruction. §§1401(9), (26), (29); see Board
of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester
Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 203 (1982). An eligible
child, as this Court has explained, acquires a
"substantive right" to such an education once a
State accepts the IDEAs financial assistance. Smith v.
Robinson, 468 U.S. 992, 1010 (1984).
the IDEA, an "individualized education program, "
called an IEP for short, serves as the "primary
vehicle" for providing each child with the promised
FAPE. Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311 (1988); see
§1414(d). (Welcome to-and apologies for-the acronymic
world of federal legislation.) Crafted by a child's
"IEP Team"-a group of school officials, teachers,
and parents-the IEP spells out a personalized plan to meet
all of the child's "educational needs."
§§1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(II)(bb), (d)(1)(B). Most
notably, the IEP documents the child's current
"levels of academic achievement, " specifies
"measurable annual goals" for how she can
"make progress in the general education curriculum,
" and lists the "special education and related
services" to be provided so that she can "advance
appropriately toward [those] goals."
§§1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(I), (II), (IV)(aa).
parents and school representatives sometimes cannot agree on
such issues, the IDEA establishes formal procedures for
resolving disputes. To begin, a dissatisfied parent may file
a complaint as to any matter concerning the provision of a
FAPE with the local or state educational agency (as state law
provides). See §1415(b)(6). That pleading generally
triggers a "[preliminary meeting" involving the
contending parties, §1415(f)(1)(B)(i); at their option,
the parties may instead (or also) pursue a full-fledged
mediation process, see § 1415(e). Assuming their impasse
continues, the matter proceeds to a "due process
hearing" before an impartial hearing officer.
§1415(f)(1)(A); see §1415(f)(3)(A)(i). Any decision
of the officer granting substantive relief must be
"based on a determination of whether the child received
a [FAPE]." §1415(f)(3)(E)(i). If the hearing is
initially conducted at the local level, the ruling is
appealable to the state agency. See § 1415(g). Finally,
a parent unhappy with the outcome of the administrative
process may seek judicial review by filing a civil action in
state or federal court. See §1415(i)(2)(A).
as the IDEA is for children with disabilities, it is not the
only federal statute protecting their interests. Of
particular relevance to this case are two antidiscrimination
laws-Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),
42 U.S.C. §12131 etseq., and §504 of the
Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §794-which cover both
adults and children with disabilities, in both public schools
and other settings. Title II forbids any "public
entity" from discriminating based on disability; Section
504 applies the same prohibition to any federally funded
"program or activity." 42 U.S.C.
§§12131-12132; 29 U.S.C. §794(a). A regulation
implementing Title II requires a public entity to make
"reasonable modifications" to its "policies,
practices, or procedures" when necessary to avoid such
discrimination. 28 CFR §35.130(b)(7) (2016); see,
e.g., Alboniga v. School Bd. of Broward Cty., 87
F.Supp.3d 1319, 1345 (SD Fla. 2015) (requiring an
accommodation to permit use of a service animal under Title
II). In simi- lar vein, courts have interpreted §504 as
demanding certain "reasonable" modifications to
existing practices in order to "accommodate"
persons with disabilities. Alexander v. Choate, 469
U.S. 287, 299-300 (1985); see, e.g., Sullivan v. Vallejo
City Unified School Dist., 731 F.Supp. 947, 961-962 (ED
Cal. 1990) (requiring an accommodation to permit use of a
service animal under §504). And both statutes authorize
individuals to seek redress for violations of their
substantive guarantees by bringing suits for injunctive
relief or money damages. See 29 U.S.C. §794a(a)(2); 42
Court first considered the interaction between such laws and
the IDEA in Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S.
992.The plaintiffs there sought "to
secure a 'free appropriate public education' for
[their] handicapped child." Id., at 994. But
instead of bringing suit under the IDEA alone, they appended
"virtually identical" claims (again alleging the
denial of a "free appropriate public education")
under §504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Fourteenth
Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Id., at
1009; see id., at 1016. The Court held that the IDEA
altogether foreclosed those additional claims: With its
"comprehensive" and "carefully tailored"
provisions, the Act was "the exclusive avenue"
through which a child with a disability (or his parents)
could challenge the adequacy of his education. Id.,
at 1009; see id., at 1013, 1016, 1021.
was quick to respond. In the Handicapped Children's
Protection Act of 1986, 100 Stat. 796, it overturned
Smith's preclusion of non-IDEA claims while also
adding a carefully defined exhaustion requirement. Now
codified at 20 U.S.C. §1415(Z), the relevant provision
of that statute reads:
"Nothing in [the IDEA] shall be construed to restrict or
limit the rights, procedures, and remedies available under
the Constitution, the [ADA], title V of the Rehabilitation
Act [including §504], or other Federal laws protecting
the rights of children with disabilities, except that before
the filing of a civil action under such laws seeking relief
that is also available under [the IDEA], the [IDEAs
administrative procedures] shall be ...