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Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools

United States Supreme Court

February 22, 2017

STACY FRY, et vir, as next friends of minor E. F., PETITIONERS
v.
NAPOLEON COMMUNITY SCHOOLS, ET AL.

          Argued October 31, 2016

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT

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. §1415®.
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.

         Held:

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.

          KAGAN, 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.

          OPINION

          KAGAN, JUSTICE

         The 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).

         I

         A

         The 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).

         Under 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).

         Because 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).

         Important 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 U.S.C. §12133.

         This Court first considered the interaction between such laws and the IDEA in Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992.[1]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.

         Congress 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 ยง504], 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 ...

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