Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools

On February 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court decided Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, No. 15-497, holding that the plaintiff did not need to exhaust administrative procedures and remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when the basis of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee of a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to children with certain disabilities. 

The plaintiff’s daughter, E. F., has a severe form of cerebral palsy, and her trained service dog named Wonder assists her with various daily life activities. When E. F.’s parents sought permission for Wonder to join E. F. in kindergarten, officials at her school refused. The school administrators claimed that the human aide provided as part of E. F.’s individualized education program rendered the dog superfluous. The Frys removed E.F. from the school and began homeschooling her. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generally requires a school district to modify its policies, practices or procedures to permit a student with a disability to use a service animal. IDEA or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (504) also may require school districts to allow a child to bring a service animal to school as part of FAPE. 

The Frys filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, claiming that the exclusion of E.F.’s service animal violated her rights under Title II of the ADA and § 504. The Frys then filed suit in federal court against the local and regional school districts and the principal, alleging violations of Title II and §504 and seeking declaratory and monetary relief. The District Court dismissed the suit, holding that section §1415(l) of IDEA required the Frys to first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that §1415(l) applies whenever a plaintiff’s alleged harms are “educational” in nature.

The Supreme Court vacated and remanded. The Court held that exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative procedures is unnecessary where the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee of a FAPE.  Although a plaintiff cannot escape §1415(l)’s requirements merely by bringing suit under a statute other than the IDEA, a suit under a different statute that does not seek a remedy for the denial of a FAPE does not require exhaustion of IDEA’s procedures. A court deciding whether §1415(l) applies must therefore examine whether a plaintiff’s complaint seeks relief for the denial of an appropriate education; if so, exhaustion of the IDEA procedures is required.

What does this mean for districts? Parents of students may be able to sue regarding the denial of permission for a service animal in federal court without exhausting the administrative remedies required under the IDEA.  This case does not change the legal standards requiring schools to allow service animals.  Forbidding the use of service animals in school continues to violate the law if it means that a student with disabilities is effectively denied the equal opportunity to benefit from an educational program.  However, after Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, there may now be a more significant financial penalty for districts than there has been in the past if service animal requests are not responded to properly in the educational context. Districts should continue to carefully consider requests for service animals and consult with legal counsel if questions arise.  


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