February 22, 2017 Groundbreaking Supreme Court Decision Supporting the Rights of Students with Disabilities: Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools

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Analysis by Attorney Lawrence Berliner 

In a nearly unanimous decision issued today in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that parents of children with disabilities do not have to exhaust their IDEA administrative remedies, known as a Due Process hearing, as a condition precedent to filing a lawsuit in federal court when their claims of discrimination are wholly unrelated to the provision of a Free Appropriate Public Education or FAPE under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In Fry, the student had an IEP, but there was no claim that the IEP had denied the student FAPE. Instead, the parents of the student had alleged that Napoleon Community Schools had deprived the student of rights secured by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, when the school district prevented the student from bringing a service animal to school. The parents filed a federal court lawsuit alleging that the school district was depriving the student of rights secured by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, because those federal laws permitted a person with a disability to have service animal in a school setting. In response to the parents' lawsuit, the school district filled a motion to dismiss the parents' claims because they had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies as provided for in the IDEA. In response the parents asserted that since their claims arose under the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and not the IDEA, they did not have to exhaust the IDEA's administrative remedies as a condition precedent to filing a lawsuit alleging disability based discrimination and not a denial of FAPE under the IDEA.

In today's decision, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Fry, holding that the 1986 Handicapped Children's Protection Act, a law championed by Connecticut's Senator Lowell Weicker at that time, made it clear that the parents did not have to exhaust their IDEA administrative remedies in those cases when the parents were not challenging whether or not an IEP provided a student with FAPE, but alleging discrimination under Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Supreme Court's decision is a significant development in promoting the rights of children with disabilities to be free from discrimination based upon their disability in a school setting. Families of students with disabilities are free to proceed directly to federal court and secure rights guaranteed by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, without having to exhaust IDEA administrative remedies.

The Supreme Court's opinion in this case is available at this link: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-497_p8k0.pdf