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Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Schs.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

June 12, 2015

STACY FRY and BRENT FRY, as next friends of minor E.F., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
NAPOLEON COMMUNITY SCHOOLS; PAMELA BARNES; JACKSON COUNTY INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendants-Appellees

Argued October 1, 2014

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:12-cv-15507--Lawrence P. Zatkoff, District Judge.

ARGUED:

James F. Hermon, DYKEMA GOSSETT PLLC, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellants.

Timothy J. Mullins, GIARMARCO, MULLINS & HORTON, P.C., Troy, Michigan, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

James F. Hermon, DYKEMA GOSSETT PLLC, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellants.

Timothy J. Mullins, Kenneth B. Chapie, GIARMARCO, MULLINS & HORTON, P.C., Troy, Michigan, for Appellees.

Before: DAUGHTREY, ROGERS, and DONALD, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 623

ROGERS, Circuit Judge.

The administrative exhaustion requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) must, under that act, be met even with respect to some claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. The question on this appeal is whether the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims in this case are such claims requiring IDEA exhaustion.

The Frys' daughter, E.F., suffers from cerebral palsy and was prescribed a service dog to assist her with everyday tasks. Her school, which provided her with a human aide as part of her Individualized Education Program (IEP) under the IDEA, refused to permit her to bring her service dog to school. The Frys sued the school, its principal, and the school district, alleging violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act and state disability law. The district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) on the grounds that because the Frys' claims necessarily implicated E.F.'s IEP, the IDEA's exhaustion provision required the Frys to exhaust IDEA administrative procedures prior to bringing suit under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. The Frys appeal, arguing that the IDEA exhaustion provision does not apply because they do not seek relief provided by IDEA procedures. But because the specific injuries the Frys allege are essentially educational, they are exactly the sort of injuries the IDEA aims to prevent, and therefore the IDEA's exhaustion requirement applies to the Frys' claims.

Page 624

Because this is an appeal from a grant of a motion to dismiss based on the pleadings, we take as true the facts alleged in the Frys' complaint. See S. Ohio Bank v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 479 F.2d 478, 480 (6th Cir. 1973).

E.F., the daughter of Stacy and Brent Fry, was born with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which significantly impairs her motor skills and mobility. In 2008, E.F. was prescribed a service dog. Over the course of the next year, E.F. obtained and trained with a specially trained service dog, a hybrid goldendoodle named Wonder. Wonder assists E.F. by increasing her mobility and assisting with physical tasks such as using the toilet and retrieving dropped items. At the time this dispute arose, E.F. could not handle Wonder on her own, but at some point in the future she would be able to. In October 2009, when Wonder's training was complete, her school, Ezra Eby Elementary School, refused permission for Wonder to accompany E.F. at school. There was already an IEP in place for E.F. for the 2009-2010 school year that included a human aide providing one-on-one support. In a specially convened IEP meeting in January 2010, school administrators confirmed the decision to prohibit Wonder, reasoning in part that Wonder would not be able to provide any support the human aide could not provide. In April 2010, the school agreed to a trial period, to last until the end of the school year, during which E.F. could bring Wonder to school. During this trial period, however, Wonder was not at all times permitted to be with E.F. or to perform some functions for which he had been trained. At the end of the trial period, the school informed the Frys that Wonder would not be permitted to attend school with E.F. in the coming school year.

The Frys then began homeschooling E.F. and filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education under the ADA and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Two years later, in May 2012, the Office of Civil Rights found that the school's refusal to permit Wonder to attend with E.F. was a violation of the ADA. At that time, without accepting the factual or legal conclusions of the Office of Civil Rights, the school agreed to permit E.F. to attend school with Wonder starting in fall 2012. However, the Frys decided to enroll E.F. in a school in a different district where they encountered no opposition to Wonder's attending school with E.F.

The Frys filed suit on December 17, 2012, seeking damages for the school's refusal to accommodate Wonder between fall 2009 and spring 2012. The Frys alleged the following particular injuries: denial of equal access to school facilities, denial of the use of Wonder as a service dog, interference with E.F.'s ability to form a bond with Wonder, denial of the opportunity to interact with other students at Ezra Eby Elementary School, and psychological harm caused by the defendants' refusal to accommodate E.F. as a disabled person. The Frys sought relief under Title II of the ADA, § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (which prohibits discrimination based on disability in " any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance" ), and the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act. The district court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claim.

On January 10, 2014, the district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(c), finding that the IDEA's exhaustion requirements applied to the Frys' claims and dismissing them without prejudice. The court noted that although the Frys did not specifically allege any flaw in E.F.'s IEP, if she were permitted to attend school with Wonder, that document would almost certainly have

Page 625

to be modified in order to articulate the policies and practices that would apply to the dog. EF ex rel. Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, No. 12-15507, 2014 WL 106624, at *5 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 10, 2014). Therefore, the Frys' request for permission for E.F. to attend school with Wonder " would be best dealt with through the administrative process," and exhaustion was required. Id. Because the Frys had not exhausted IDEA administrative remedies, the district court dismissed their suit without prejudice. Id. The Frys timely appealed.

The IDEA exhaustion requirement applies to the Frys' claims. Under that statute, plaintiffs must exhaust IDEA procedures if they seek " relief that is also available" under IDEA, even if they do not include IDEA claims in their complaint. 20 U.S.C. § 1415( l ). This language requires exhaustion when the injuries alleged can be remedied through IDEA procedures, or when the injuries relate to the specific substantive protections of the IDEA. See S.E. v. Grant Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 544 F.3d 633, 642 (6th Cir. 2008). The core harms that the Frys allege arise from the school's refusal to permit E.F. to attend school with Wonder relate to the specific educational purpose of the IDEA. The Frys could have used IDEA procedures to remedy these harms. Therefore, the nature of the Frys' claims required them to exhaust IDEA procedures before filing suit under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

The IDEA's exhaustion requirement ensures that complex factual disputes over the education of disabled children are resolved, or at least analyzed, through specialized local administrative procedures. The IDEA outlines standards and procedures for accommodations and services provided to disabled children whose disabilities cause them to need " special education and related services." 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3)(A). One of its primary purposes is to " ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living." Id. § 1400(d)(1)(A). To this end, the IDEA requires that schools and school districts develop an IEP for each such child. Id. § 1414(d)(2)(A). The IEP outlines " the child's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance[,] . . . measurable annual . . . academic and functional goals," measurement criteria for meeting those goals, and the " special education and related services and supplementary aids and services . . . and . . . the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided for the child" to make progress in achieving the goals. Id. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i).

The IDEA's procedures for creating and amending a child's IEP encourage participation by those directly involved in the child's care in education, application of expert analysis, and swift dispute resolution. There must be an IEP in effect for each disabled child by the start of each school year. Id. § 1414(d)(2)(A). The IEP is created by an IEP team, which includes the child's parents, at least one of the child's regular education teachers, at least one of the child's special education teachers, and a representative of the " local education agency" who is qualified in special education, knowledgeable about the general curriculum, and knowledgeable about the local education agency's resources. Id. § 1414(d)(1)(B). Any party can present a complaint " with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education

Page 626

to such child," including disputes over the content of the child's IEP. Id. § 1415(b)(6)(A); see id. § 1401(9)(D) (defining a free appropriate public education as an education " provided in conformity with the individualized education program" ). Within 15 days of receiving notice of a child's parents' complaint, the local educational agency must hold a " preliminary meeting" with the parents and other members of the IEP team to give the local educational agency " the opportunity to resolve the complaint." Id. § 1415(f)(1)(B)(i). If the local educational agency has not resolved the dispute within 30 days of receiving the complaint, the timeline for a " due process hearing" begins. Id. § 1415(f)(1)(B)(ii). This process must conclude--with the local or state educational agency issuing a written decision to the parties--within 45 days. 34 C.F.R. § 300.515(a). If the local agency conducted the hearing, the decision can be appealed to the state educational agency, which conducts an impartial review and issues a decision within 30 days. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(g); 34 C.F.R. § 300.515(b). These deadlines are of course not entirely set in stone, but in the abstract a dispute about an IEP should go through a resolution meeting, a local agency determination, and a state agency determination within 105 days of the initial complaint. Only at this point may either party take the dispute to court, and the court then receives " the records of the administrative proceedings." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2). The statute and implementing regulations ensure that the parties have a chance to resolve the dispute without going to court and that local and state educational agencies have a chance to analyze and study it.

Requiring exhaustion of administrative procedures prior to filing suit under the IDEA has clear policy justifications: " States are given the power to place themselves in compliance with the law, and the incentive to develop a regular system for fairly resolving conflicts under the Act. Federal courts--generalists with no expertise in the educational needs of handicapped students--are given the benefit of expert factfinding by a state agency devoted to this very purpose." Crocker v. Tenn. Secondary Sch. Athletic Ass'n, 873 F.2d 933, 935 (6th Cir. 1989) (analyzing substantially similar provisions of the IDEA's predecessor statute). The IDEA calls for highly fact-intensive analysis of a child's disability and her school's ability to accommodate her. The procedures outlined above ensure that the child's parents and educators, as well as local experts, are first in line to conduct this analysis.

The IDEA's substantive protections overlap significantly with other federal legislation and constitutional protections, and so this policy justification would be threatened if parties could evade IDEA procedures by bringing suit contesting educational accommodations under other causes of action. The IDEA contemplates and explicitly precludes this possibility:

[B]efore the filing of a civil action under [the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, or other Federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities] seeking relief that is also available under this subchapter, the procedures under subsections (f) and (g) shall be exhausted to the same ...

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