U.S. Supreme Court Outlines Boundaries Between Special Education and Disability Cases


Last week, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools. In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court held that the exhaustion of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA) administrative remedies is unnecessary where the primary purpose of a lawsuit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).


E.F. suffers from cerebral palsy and was prescribed a service dog (named Wonder) to assist her with everyday tasks. Her school, which provided her with a human aide as part of her Individualized Education Program (IEP), refused to permit E.F. to bring her service dog to school. E.F.’s parents sued the school, its principal, and the school district, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

At the time this dispute arose, E.F. could not handle Wonder on her own, but at some point in the future she was expected to be able to handle the dog. In October 2009, when Wonder’s training was complete, the school refused permission for Wonder to accompany E.F. at school. (For the 2009-2010 school year, E.F.’s IEP included a human aide providing one-on-one support).

In an IEP meeting, school administrators confirmed the decision to prohibit Wonder from accompanying E.F. to school, claiming that Wonder would not be able to provide any support that the human aide could not provide. Later, the school agreed to a "trial period" 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 E.F.’s parents that Wonder would not be allowed to attend school with E.F. in the coming school year.

As a result, E.F.’s parents began homeschooling her and later filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) under the ADA and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Two years later, in May 2012, OCR found that the school’s refusal to permit Wonder to attend school with E.F. was a violation of the ADA. As a result, without accepting the factual or legal conclusions of OCR, the school agreed to permit E.F. to attend school with Wonder starting in the fall 2012.

However, E.F.’s parents decided to enroll her in a school in a different district where they encountered no opposition to Wonder’s attending school with E.F. Later, E.F.’s parents filed suit against the school seeking damages for the school’s refusal to accommodate Wonder between the fall of 2009 and the spring 2012.

In the lawsuit, E.F.’s parents claimed that she suffered (1) denial of equal access to school facilities, (2) denial of the use of Wonder as a service dog, (3) interference with E.F.’s ability to form a bond with Wonder, (4) denial of the opportunity to interact with other students at her elementary school, and (5) psychological harm caused by the school’s refusal to accommodate E.F. as a disabled person.

The United States district court granted the school’s motion to dismiss, finding that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirements applied to E.F.’s claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed and found that “the nature of [E.F.’s] claims required them to exhaust IDEA procedures before filing suit under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.”


The Supreme Court disagreed with the Sixth Circuit and ruled that when families like E.F.’s file lawsuits under the ADA or Rehabilitation Act, which bar discrimination against both adults and children with disabilities, they do not need to first go through the administrative proceedings required by the IDEA unless the focus of the lawsuit is an allegation that the student did not receive FAPE. Put another way, this means that a student who alleges that a school has discriminated against her because of her disability is not required to use the IDEA’s administrative proceedings simply because the alleged discrimination happened at school.

The Supreme Court also explained that it is entirely possible that E.F.’s parents may not have been required to go through the IDEA’s administrative proceedings before filing their lawsuit in federal court. Their lawsuit does not argue that E.F. was denied FAPE. Instead, the family “could have filed essentially the same complaint if a public library or theater had refused admittance to Wonder,” and an adult who visited E.F.’s school “could have leveled much the same charges if prevented from entering with his service dog.”

In the end, the Supreme Court found that it did not have enough information to make that determination conclusively because “the record is cloudy” as to whether E.F.’s family had tried to pursue administrative remedies before filing its case. Therefore, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts to resolve the question.

In sum, even if the Supreme Court did not provide E.F. and her family a complete victory, it appears to be a significant win.