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Parents Must Exhaust Administrative Remedies Under The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act
In a class-action complaint, parents of current and former San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) students with dyslexia, autism, and other disabilities alleged SFUSD failed to fulfill its obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Specifically, plaintiffs alleged SFUSD failed to: (1) timely identify and evaluate students who qualify for special services, (2) offer appropriately tailored special education services to students with disabilities, and (3) provide sufficient resources for its special education program.
The parents did not initiate a procedure in the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) or under a less formal process called complaint resolution proceeding (CRP), which allows a parent to bring a complaint directly to the California Department of Education. IDEA requires states to provide an opportunity for an impartial due process hearing to parents who dispute what services must be provided to their child, and parents must generally exhaust this remedy before filing a lawsuit in court.
The trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint about failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The court concluded that the plaintiffs did not allege enough facts in their complaint to support their argument that an exception to the exhaustion requirement applied to their claims. The trial court allowed the plaintiffs to amend their complaints. The plaintiffs did so and alleged that the OAH procedure would be useless because they sought to address “systematic,” district-wide complaints. The trial court again dismissed their complaint, finding that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their complaints through administrative remedies, and barred the plaintiffs from bringing that same claim to court. The plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Ninth Circuit agreed with the trial court. The Ninth Circuit found that plaintiffs sought a remedy for failure to provide free access to education (FAPE). Under IDEA, plaintiffs must exhaust administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit if they seek a remedy for a school’s failure to provide a FAPE. There is an exception to this requirement when: (1) use of the administrative process would be futile, (2) the claim arises from a policy or practice of general applicability that is contrary to law, or (3) it is improbable that adequate relief can be obtained by pursuing administrative remedies. The Ninth Circuit emphasized that these exceptions apply to limited situations where pursuing administrative remedies would serve no purpose. In those cases, exhaustion would not be required if the facts of the case would not further IDEA’s intent that state and local education entities should ensure IDEA’s compliance, not the courts.
The Ninth Circuit found that the plaintiffs did not identify any SFUSD policy that could not be addressed through administrative processes. The Ninth Circuit also noted that the trial court could not determine how SFUSD may have failed their students because there was no record from an administrative proceeding and therefore, the trial court would be “ill-equipped to determine whether students were receiving a FAPE.”
The Ninth Circuit also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that there was no point in seeking administrative remedies because the plaintiffs wanted to systematically change the SFUSD special education system. The Ninth Circuit noted it has not issued an opinion that found that a challenge was “systemic” and exhaustion of administrative remedies was not required. Furthermore, the plaintiffs did not identify the policies or practices they felt needed to be addressed and did not explain why administrative remedies would not correct SFUSD’s alleged deficiencies. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the trial court that “merely characterizing a school district’s problems as ‘systemic’ and the relief sought as ‘structural’ does not provide the facts necessary to show that the allegedly needed reform is… anything other than increased funding and greater adherence to existing policies.” The Ninth Circuit emphasized the importance of giving California educational agencies the opportunity to investigate complaints and correct a school’s failures before a parent files a lawsuit against the school.
Student A v. San Francisco Unified Sch. Dist. (9th Cir. 2021) 9 F.4th 1079.