The Supreme Court currently has two important special education cases on its docket for this term. The first is Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (10th Cir.), which will revisit the free and appropriate public education (FAPE) standard set in Board of Education of Hendricks Hudson School District v. Rowley (U.S. 1982). The second is Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (6th Cir.), which looks at whether Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) exhaustion is required when parents sue for monetary damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504).

Endrew F. involves a student with autism who received special education and related services in the public school until his parents unilaterally placed him in a private school for 5th grade. The parents then filed for a due process hearing, requesting reimbursement for the private school placement. The hearing officer found in favor of the school district because the IEP was “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefit,” citing Rowley. The district court and Tenth Circuit affirmed.

In dispute before the Supreme Court is the amount of educational benefit needed to find a student has been provided FAPE. The Tenth Circuit used the “some educational benefit” standard. This standard is also used here in the Seventh Circuit and was recently endorsed by the Fourth Circuit (see this alert). The Third Circuit, however, uses the “meaningful benefit” standard, which the parents in Endrew F. support. The United States also filed a supporting brief arguing in favor of the “meaningful benefit” standard. Both standards are based on Rowley.

The IDEA requires that students with disabilities be provided FAPE, but does not identify a level achievement or growth required for compliance. The Supreme Court, in Rowley, explained that the IDEA provides students with disabilities access to education (a floor of opportunity) but does not guarantee any particular outcome (schools are not required to maximize the potential of students with disabilities). The Court concluded that FAPE requires “access to specialized instruction and related services which are individually designed to provide educational benefit.” The Court, however, declined to “establish any one test for determining the adequacy of educational benefits.”

In the 34 years since Rowley was decided, the IDEA has been amended twice, but Congress has not added an explicit definition of the level of educational benefit to which students with disabilities are entitled. In the absence of a more definite standard, courts across the country have applied Rowley, some looking for “some educational benefit,” some looking for “meaningful educational benefit,” and some using both formulations in conjunction or interchangeably. The question for the Court is whether, given the diversity of students with disabilities and the text of the IDEA, a more precise standard can be formulated than what was set out in Rowley.

Fry involves an elementary school student with cerebral palsy whose parents wanted her to be accompanied by her service dog at school to increase her independence. The IEP team considered the request but denied it, finding that the human aide already included in the student’s IEP provided the support needed for the student to access her education. The parents filed suit under Section 504 and the ADA seeking monetary damages. The district court dismissed the suit and the Sixth Circuit affirmed because the parents had not exhausted their IDEA remedies.

The IDEA requires parents to exhaust IDEA procedures prior to filing suit under Section 504 or the ADA when parents seek “relief that is also available” under the IDEA, even if parents do not include IDEA claims in their complaint. The Sixth Circuit explained that this provision bars suits when the injuries alleged can be remedied through the IDEA procedures or relate to the substantive protections of the IDEA. The Seventh Circuit has similarly held that exhaustion is required when “both the genesis and the manifestations of the problem are educational.” This interpretation considers whether the claim is ultimately one of FAPE that could be remedied through the IDEA procedures even though parents framed their claims as discrimination claims and sought monetary relief, which is not available under the IDEA.

The Supreme Court will consider when the exhaustion requirement applies. Most circuits have adopted the injury-centered approach used in the Sixth and Seventh Circuits, focused on whether the injury alleged is essentially a denial of FAPE. The United States, however, filed a brief supporting a relief-centered approach, focused entirely on whether the relief requested by parents is available under the IDEA. This reading, contrary to the holdings of most circuit courts but grounded in the plain language of the IDEA, would allow parents to file Section 504 and ADA claims seeking monetary relief without exhausting IDEA remedies. The resolution of this issue could have significant implications for how disputes related to the education of students with disabilities are handled.

Fry is scheduled to be heard by the Court on October 31, 2016; argument in Endrew F. has not yet been scheduled. We will keep you updated when the Court issues decisions. Note also that the IDEA is up for reauthorization, so if Congress disagrees with the Court’s findings on either of these issues, we may see a change in the updated statue.