Opting Out of IDEA Services Did Not Circumvent IDEA's Exhaustion Mandate

Opting Out of IDEA Services Did Not Circumvent IDEA's Exhaustion Mandate

The parents of minor child E.D., an individual with Down syndrome, sought accommodations at Palmyra Elementary School under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.  Specifically, the parents requested that E.D. remain in a regular classroom with the assistance of an iPad to be integrated into his lessons.  The school offered, instead, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that would have provided the iPad-related accommodations but would have required E.D. to be placed in a special-education class.

E.D.’s parents rejected the IEP proposals and sued Palmyra for violation of Section 504, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Fourteenth Amendment, alleging that the school denied E.D. access to a free public education by failing to provide the requested accommodations.  Section 504 of the Rehab Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act are laws that require schools to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities, whereas the IDEA requires schools to provide a free appropriate public education to disabled students and prohibits discrimination in education services based on disability.  A person may sue in court for remedies under Section 504 and the ADA without going through administrative appeals, but IDEA requires a student to exhaust the school system appeals process before going to court.  Palmyra moved for judgment in its favor on the grounds that the parents failed to exhaust their administrative remedies under IDEA.

The federal court held that, although the parents brought their suit under the separate disability discrimination laws (Sec. 504 and ADA), they must nevertheless exhaust their administrative (school system appeal) remedies required under IDEA. The court said that opting out of IDEA services does not circumvent the IDEA-exhaustion mandate if the “gravamen of the complaint” is the denial of a free, appropriate public education.  E.D. v. Palmyra R-I School District, 2019 WL 80714 (8th Cir. Jan. 3, 2019)

In the earlier case of Fry v. Community Schools, 580 U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 743, 197 L. Ed. 2d 46 (2017), the U. S. Supreme Court considered a case filed under Section 504.  E.F., the daughter of Stacy and Brent Fry, was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which significantly impairs her motor skills and mobility.  In 2008, E.F. was prescribed a service dog.  Over the course of the next year, E.F. obtained and trained with a specially trained service dog, a hybrid goldendoodle named Wonder.  Wonder assists E.F. by increasing her mobility and assisting with physical tasks such as using the toilet and retrieving dropped items.  At the time this dispute arose, E.F. could not handle Wonder on her own, but at some point in the future she would be able to.  In October 2009, when Wonder’s training was complete, her school, Ezra Eby Elementary School, refused permission for Wonder to accompany E.F. at school.  There was already an IEP in place for E.F. for the 2009-2010 school year that included a human aide providing one-on-one support.  In a specially convened IEP meeting in January 2010, school administrators confirmed the decision to prohibit Wonder, reasoning in part that Wonder would not be able to provide any support the human aide could not provide.  In April 2010, the school agreed to a trial period, to last until the end of the school year, during which E.F. could bring Wonder to school.  During this trial period, however, Wonder was not at all times permitted to be with E.F. or to perform some functions for which he had been trained.  At the end of the trial period, the school informed the Frys that Wonder would not be permitted to attend school with E.F. in the coming school year.  The Frys then began homeschooling E.F. and filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education under the ADA and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. 

The trial court and federal Circuit Court dismissed the complaint and stated that exhaustion of the administrative appeals within the school system was required.  However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, since the complaint did not challenge the school’s provision of a free appropriate education but only challenged the school’s deprivation of E.F.’s service dog as a disability accommodation, there was no need to complete the administrative appeal process before going to court.  Such exhaustion is required when any complaint – under Section 504, ADA or the IDEA – alleges facts that indicate a denial of a free appropriate public education.

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