Today the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the decision of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools. According to the court’s opinion, the case arose after a child (referred to as “E.F.”) with cerebral palsy wanted to enter kindergarten with her service dog, a goldendoodle named Wonder. Wonder had been trained to retrieve dropped items, open and close doors, turn on and off lights, help E.F. take off her coat, and help E.F. with balancing and mobility issues.
E.F.’s school, however, did not want to let Wonder into the building. It reasoned that it was already providing E.F. with a human aide. As E.F.’s kindergarten year wore on, the school relented to the extent that it allowed Wonder into the room for a trial period, but Wonder had to remain at the back of the room and was not allowed to help E.F. in accordance with his training. When the trial period ended, the school returned to its no-dog position. E.F.’s parents withdrew E.F. and started to homeschool her. Meanwhile, it continued to fight the battle over Wonder with the school by filing a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
That office found the school needed to admit Wonder into the building along with E.F. It reasoned that Wonder was like a cane for a blind student. In the same way that a school would allow a blind student to use a cane even if it also provided the student with a human aide, the school needed to admit Wonder even though it also provided E.F. with a human aide. The school relented and promised that Wonder could come back to school along with E.F.
By this time, however, E.F.’s parents were sufficiently unhappy with the school that they decided to enroll E.F. in a different public school that would be more welcoming to both E.F. and Wonder. They did this.
However, E.F.’s parents also filed suit against her former school for disability discrimination in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. The school, however, argued that E.F.’s parents had no right to bring the lawsuit at all because their proper course of action was to seek a remedy under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). While E.F.’s parents could go straight to court under the ADA, it would have to go through several preliminary steps (“exhaust administrative remedies”) under the IDEA.
The issue that the U.S. Supreme Court considered was this narrow question: could E.F.’s parents go straight to court with a lawsuit for violation of the ADA rights of E.F., or were E.F.’s parents first obliged to exhaust their administrative remedies under the IDEA? Clearly, E.F. had rights as a disabled student under both the ADA and the IDEA. A lawsuit under the ADA would be easier for the parents to bring and maintain, while a lawsuit under the IDEA would be easier for the school to respond to.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided that E.F.’s parents could bring the lawsuit under the ADA. It reasoned that the purpose of the IDEA is to ensure that disabled children get a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE). For the lawsuit over E.F. and Wonder to fall under the IDEA, it would have to seek relief for the school’s denial of a FAPE to E.F.
In addition, to prevent clever plaintiffs’ lawyers from phrasing an IDEA lawsuit as an ADA lawsuit, or a clever defense attorney from insisting that an ADA lawsuit was “really” an IDEA lawsuit no matter how the phrasing went, the U.S. Supreme Court set down the basic rule for knowing which was which: it would depend on the “gravamen,” or the fundamental nature, of the alleged misconduct by the school. The Court offered a few helpful tips on figuring this out:
One clue to whether the gravamen of a complaint against a school concerns the denial of a FAPE, or instead addresses disability-based discrimination, can come from asking a pair of hypothetical questions. First, could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school — say, a public theater or library? And second, could an adult at the school — say, an employee or visitor — have pressed essentially the same grievance?
If the answer to these questions was “yes,” the court reasoned, the case was likely one that fell under the ADA. If the answer was no, then the case was likely one that fell under the IDEA, no matter how skillfully the plaintiffs’ attorney tried to avoid saying so.
Two justices (Alito and Thomas) disagreed with the other justices that the above clues were good ones. They suggested that plaintiffs might have overlapping claims under both the IDEA and the ADA, or that plaintiffs might change their mind in mid-lawsuit as to which claims they wanted to bring. According to these two dissenting justices, the clues laid out by the majority of the justices were likely to cause confusion in the lower courts rather than to resolve the issues.