Should Families Be Forced to Jump Through Hoops to Get Their Special Needs Children the Accommodations That They Need?

By Nicole La Grega, J.D. Class of 2018 Touro Law Review  Junior Staff Member

In Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Schs.,[1] the Sixth Circuit held that a parent must exhaust all requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) 20 U.S.C.S. §1415 before bringing claims against the school, its principal and the school district for violating the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act by refusing to permit a child from bringing a service dog to school.[2] The Plaintiff’s (the Frys) had a daughter (E.F.) who suffered from cerebral palsy; she had a service dog to assist her with everyday tasks such as using the bathroom and picking up dropped items.[3] E. F’s school provided her with a human aide to assist her in school pursuant to the Individualized Education Program (IEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (IDEA). However, the school refused to allow E.F.’s service dog to attend school with her.[4] The Frys sued alleging violations of the ADA and Rehabilitation Act and the State Disability Law.[5] The District court granted the defendant’s (Napoleon County Schools) motion to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12 ( c ) claiming that the Frys had to exhaust all other administrative procedures under IDEA.[6] The Frys appealed, arguing that the IDEA exhaustion requirement does not apply to them because they did not seek the type of relief provided by IDEA procedures.[7]

The Fry’s decided to home school their daughter until they found a school that had no opposition to the service dog attending school with E.F. [8] The Frys claimed that because the school refused to allow the service dog to attend school with E.F. from Fall 2009 to Spring 2012, their daughter was denied an equal opportunity to access the school’s facilities and to interact with other students. [9] Furthermore, this refusal interfered with E.F.’s ability to form a bond with her service dog.[10] The Napoleon County Schools argued that IDEA’s exhaustion requirement applied to the Frys. The District Court agreed and granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The Fry’s appealed.[11]

The IDEA’s exhaustion requirement “calls for [a] highly fact-intensive analysis of a child’s disability and her school’s ability to accommodate her. The procedures ensure that the child’s parents and educators, as well as local experts, are first in line to conduct this analysis.”[12] The court discussed how exhaustion requirements are not required when the injuries do not relate to the free appropriate public education as defined by the IDEA, as well as when they cannot be remedied through the administrative process.[13]

The court discussed that the school already provided accommodations for E.F., but that the accommodation of having a human aide was not sufficient because it was not helping E.F. to learn to function on her own.[14] The Frys argued that by denying the service dog to attend school with E.F., the school was not “allowing them to form a bond,” as well as preventing the specific “psychological and social assistance” the service dog would provide E.F. with that the human aide could not.[15] Even though the school already provided accommodations for E.F., they are not the type of accommodations E.F. requires. E.F. needs to learn to be self-sufficient and having a human aid will not help this process.[16] The purpose of a service animal is to provide people specified help so they can get through everyday activities on their own in hopes to not require a human aid for their entire life.

The court held that IDEA was designed to address the specific harms that the Frys alleged in their complaint and that the Frys should have been able to obtain relief under IDEA if followed correctly.[17] Even though the Frys were seeking money damages that were unviable under the IDEA, this does not excuse the exhaustion requirement. [18]

On appeal, the Frys argued that the circumstances in their specific situation rendered the exhaustion requirement of the IDEA futile because the Frys were seeking monetary damages and that is unavailable under IDEA.[19] In addition, IDEA procedures would force the school to allow the service dog to attend the school, but E.F no longer attends the school.[20] The relief that the IDEA procedures would produce were not needed by the Frys anymore, making the exhaustion requirement a waste of time and money for the family. Therefore, pursuing a more direct method in court was a better alternative for the Frys. The Frys relied on the federal district court decision in Sullivan v. Vallejo City Unified Sch. Dist. to prove that the exhaustion requirement should not apply to their claim.[21] The court dismissed the Frys’ reliance on Sullivan, holding that the “logic does not hold.”[22] The court discussed that the logic from Sullivan would permit any ADA complaint stating that an accommodation would enhance the child’s educational opportunity, to allow for avoidance of the exhaustion requirement.[23] The Frys did not directly state that the service dog would enhance E.F.’s educational opportunities.[24] The Frys complaint stated that the service dog would help E.F. become more self-sufficient. The court stated that at a minimum an exhaustion requirement must apply when there is a denial of an accommodation. If the Frys did start the process of going through the IDEA requirements, they might have had a better outcome. E.F. attended school without her service dog for some time, and if her parents followed the IDEA procedures there is a possibility that the school would have allowed the service dog to attend school with E.F. Following the IDEA exhaustion requirements might be in the best interest of the child. The Court affirmed the lower court’s decision that IDEA requirements must be followed and exhausted first, therefore, the Fry’s’ appealed to the Supreme Court.

The implications of the exhaustion requirement on families with special needs children are tremendous. Going through all the requirements can be time-consuming, which could negatively impact the child’s learning experience. Also, the requirements could be costly on families. One of the major implications of this exhaustion requirement is that even after a family has exhausted all other options they still might not have the desired outcome that their child needs. If the child needs something other than what IDEA can provide him or her, the direct route, like what the Frys did, is the way to go. The needs of the child should always come first; especially when it comes to special needs children and their education.

[1] Fry v. Napoleon City. Schs., 788 F.3d 622,623 (6th Cir. 2015). Fry v. Napoleon City. Schs., was argued before the Supreme Court on October 31, 2016, and we are still awaiting a decision.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Fry, 788 F.3d at 623.

[7] Id. 

[8] Id. at 624.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Fry, 788 F.3d at 624.

[12] Id. at 626.

[13] Id. See F.H. ex rel. Hal v. Memphis City Sch., 764 F.3d 638, 644 (6th Cir. 2014).

[14] Id. at 627.

[15] Id. at 629.

[16] Fry, 788 F.3d at 629.

[17] Id. at 630.

[18]Id. 

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Fry, 788 F.3d at 630-631. See Sullivan v. Vallejo City Unified Sch. Dist., 731 F. Supp. 947 (E.D. Cal. 1990).

[22] Id. at 631.

[23] Id. 

[24] Id.

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