When can a Parent Avoid Due Process and Sue a School District Directly in Federal Court?

The United States Supreme Court yesterday provided some needed guidance for Parents of special needs children as to when their case against the School District can be brought directly in Federal Court.

It is an important issue for those situations in which the Parent’s claim is for disability based discrimination or retaliation, as opposed to a claim for better services from the School for their child.

The I.D.E.A. statute, which along with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, is the primary federal statute guaranteeing educational rights to students with disabilities.  That statute has been interpreted over the last ten years to require “exhaustion” of any claim that seeks any remedy that could be granted under the I.D.E.A. – or that in any way “relates to” the child’s education — whether brought under that statute or not, and even whether brought by a student who did not even qualify for services under the I.D.E.A.   

“Exhaustion” meant that the Parent would first have to file and obtain rulings within the state administrative procedures before being able to appeal to a federal court.  Thus, in New Jersey, the parent first had to file for Due Process and be heard by an Administrative Law Judge.  In Pennsylvania, they first had to file for Due Process and be heard by a Hearing Officer.  

This expansive interpretation of the exhaustion requirement imposed a great deal of delay and legal expense on families not even seeking educational services from their school districts.  In turn, this gave school districts an advantage over families in such cases, causing some Parents to forego their claims and others to accept less than appropriate settlements to avoid the time and expense.

The new ruling in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (Feb. 22, 2017) gives some needed clarity.  The Court ruled that there are cases that related to a child’s education that do not require exhaustion.  To determine whether a case can go straight to Federal Court or not, two questions have to be answered:  (1) could the case be brought if the facts occurred in a context other than School – such as public obligations to people with disabilities in movie theaters, parks or other venues; and (2) if so, could an adult at the school have brought the same claim had the events happened to the adult?  If the answer to these questions is “yes”, the claim can go straight to Federal Court.

Thus, claims of outright discrimination against a disabled student (such as being denied access to an after school program due to his disabilities), or claims for retaliation against the parents of a student with special needs for advocating on behalf of the child in ways the District objected to, may now be able to go straight to Federal Court.   This ruling should save at least some families from an otherwise wasteful process and help level the playing field between those parents and their School Districts.

Of course, families who believe they have such claims should contact an experienced special education attorney.