Supreme CourtThe United States Supreme Court recently gave a big win to children with disabilities.  The principal laws for children with disabilities are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504).  These federal laws prevent and combat disability-based discrimination at school, at work, and in public.  At times, they provide overlapping protections or remedies.  A recent United States Supreme Court decision, Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, gave guidance to parents, students, lawyers, and schools about applying these laws, and the ruling favors children with disabilities and their parents.

In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, a little girl in kindergarten suffered from cerebral palsy (CP).  CP significantly affected her body, arms, and legs.  To help her, her parents obtained a service dog, Wonder.  Wonder stayed at the girl’s side to help her with balance, to pick up fallen items, to turn on lights, to open doors, and more.  However, Napoleon Community Schools in Michigan did not permit the girl to go to school with Wonder.  The girl’s parents sued the school district.  During the course of the lawsuit, the parties tried to mediate their dispute.  The school district agreed that the girl could take Wonder to school on a trial basis, but with attached strings: Wonder must stay at the back of the classroom and not be by her side. Wonder could not be with the girl during lunch or recess and often was not close enough to help.  Once the trial period ended, the district prohibited the little girl from taking Wonder to school with her.

Dissatisfied and frustrated by the school district’s decision, the girl’s parents returned to court.  Ultimately, their case ended up before the Supreme Court.  The parents had sued the school district but did not argue that that the child did not receive FAPE, a free appropriate public education, under the IDEA, but relied upon the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA.  They argued that by not allowing Wonder to be with the child at school, the school violated the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA and sought monetary damages.

The Supreme Court examined the IDEA’s statutory text to determine if the relief sought is “available” under the IDEA.  Under the IDEA, the remedy is FAPE, and to secure FAPE the parents and child must resort to IDEA administrative proceedings solely if they argue that the school denied her FAPE.  This rule stems from the fact that hearing officers and judges in an IDEA action cannot provide any other “relief,” even if the suit directly relates to the “school’s treatment of a child with a disability — and so could be said to relate in some way to education.”

A plaintiff begins IDEA proceedings solely when he or she claims that there is a denial of FAPE.  To decide whether a plaintiff is seeking relief from denial of a FAPE, courts must examine the gravamen or essential nature of the complaint.  Courts are to pose two “hypothetical questions:” (1) Whether a plaintiff could sue for the same complaint had it happened at a public facility such as a public library; (2) Whether an adult at the school, for instance a visitor, could press essentially the same grievance?  If those two questions are answered “yes,” then “a complaint that does not expressly allege denial of a FAPE is also unlikely to be truly about that subject.”

The High Court continued:  To find whether the denial of FAPE is the “gravamen” of  a plaintiff’s complaint, courts examine the history of the entire dispute. During the process, if a plaintiff has started IDEA administrative proceedings “before switching midstream,” that “initial choice” “may suggest” that the plaintiff seeks “relief for the denial of a FAPE.”

Hence, under the Court’s rulings, the Frys may have avoided resorting to the IDEA’s administrative proceedings before filing their lawsuit.  The child and/or her parents could have filed a similar complaint against a public library under the same circumstances as a visitor to the school with a service dog.  The family “could have filed essentially the same complaint if a public library or theater had refused admittance to Wonder.” The High Court did not have enough information before it to determine that question and sent the case back to the lower courts.

To be sure, this case is a key win for children with disabilities not just in Tennessee, but across the country.

If you or your child is facing discrimination based on a disability or your child is not receiving FAPE, remember: You and your child have rights and remedies. If you have questions about America’s disability, anti-discrimination, and related laws, talk to a lawyer. For more information and to have your questions answered, contact Nashville Attorney Perry A. Craft.