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Student ADA Complaint Was Subject To Exhaustion Of Administrative Remedies Under IDEA
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) offers federal funds to states that furnish a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to children with physical or intellectual disabilities.
A school district provides a FAPE by devising an individualized education program (IEP), which identifies instructions for a child’s unique educational needs and support services to allow the child to benefit from the instruction. The IEP is developed by an “IEP team,” which includes the child’s parents, school officials, and teachers. The IEP also documents the child’s levels of academic achievement and identifies annual educational goals.
IDEA provides for specific procedural safeguards to address disputes over an IEP. If a parent is not satisfied with the IEP or has another complaint about the school district’s provision of the FAPE, the parent can file a complaint with the responsible state or local educational agency. Upon receiving the complaint, the agency must convene a “preliminary meeting” with the IEP team and the child’s parents, and offer to resolve the dispute through mediation. If the parents are still unsatisfied, the parties can proceed with a due process hearing before a neutral arbiter, who determines whether the child has received a FAPE. If the parents are aggrieved with the ruling, they then have the right to file a suit in civil court.
The Americans with Disability Act (ADA) also requires nondiscriminatory access to the services, programs, and activities of public facilities and requires the facility to implement policies to avoid discrimination. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act also imposes similar obligations on programs and activities that are federally funded. Both laws allow parties to file suit for monetary damages or to compel the public entity to comply with the laws.
The requirements of IDEA often overlap with the requirements of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. IDEA does not preempt other claims under these laws by children with disabilities but requires plaintiffs to exhaust their administrative remedies if they are seeking relief also available under IDEA. In other words, parents with complaints about a FAPE must go through IDEA-specific procedures for relief. If a parent seeks relief for other harms independent of a FAPE denial, then the parent is not subject to this administrative exhaustion rule.
D.D., an elementary school student, has an emotional disability that interferes with his ability to learn. D.D. started receiving special education services in kindergarten to address his physical aggression, impulsiveness and being off-task. During the school year, D.D.’s mother unsuccessfully requested a one-on-one aide to accommodate D.D.’s needs. D.D. transferred to a different school in the school district for first grade but his behavior escalated. D.D.’s mother again asked for a one-on-one aide but the school instead required D.D.’s mother to pick D.D. up from school early due to his behavior, excluding him from school activities. The school district continued to fail to provide D.D. with behavior support and services during the second grade, and the parents eventually withdrew D.D. from public school and enrolled him in nonpublic schools.
D.D. filed a request for mediation and due process hearing with the California Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). The main allegation was the school district’s failure to provide one-on-one aid or behavioral services needed for D.D. to remain in school and access his education. D.D’s request identified several other problems with the school district, including the District’s failure to offer D.D. reasonable accommodations in violation of Section 504 and the ADA.
D.D. settled his IDEA claims against the school district during mediation. D.D. then filed a complaint in federal court, alleging the district violated the ADA by failing to provide the same services sought in the IDEA proceedings. As a result, D.D. alleged he has suffered a loss of equal educational opportunity. The trial court dismissed D.D. complaint, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and found IDEA’s administrative exhaustion requirement inapplicable. The Ninth Circuit then set aside the judgment and reheard the case. On appeal, D.D. only argued that his complaint filed in federal court should not be subject to the exhaustion requirement.
The Ninth Circuit rejected D.D.’s argument that the basis of his ADA complaint is not the denial of FAPE. The Ninth Circuit reasoned that the gravamen of D.D.’s complaint is that the school district failed to provide the accommodations that he needed to access his education, and as a result, he suffered a loss of educational opportunity. The accommodations D.D. identified in the complaint, such as the one-on-one aid and other supportive services to manage his behavior, are the core components of receiving a FAPE. Therefore, because the essence of D.D.’s complaint was that he was injured by the school district’s failure to provide a FAPE, D.D. triggered the exhaustion requirement.
The Ninth Circuit also rejected D.D.’s argument that he did not need to exhaust administrative remedies because he sought monetary damages for emotional distress, which are not available under IDEA. The Ninth Circuit held that a plaintiff cannot avoid the exhaustion requirement by limiting the relief sought to just monetary damages.
Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit held that the trial court did not err in dismissing D.D.’s complaint because it was subject to the exhaustion rule.
D.D. v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist. (9th Cir. 2021) ____ F.4th ____ [2021 WL 5407763].