Student Who Alleged Denial Of Access To Public Facilities Not Required to Exhaust The Administrative Procedures Required By The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Jan 25, 2021

D.D. was an elementary school student with disability-related behavioral issues who was enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District. As early as kindergarten, D.D.’s school called his mother to take him home early from school. D.D.’s mother requested a one-to-one aide “to accommodate D.D.’s needs and enable him to participate with his peers,” but the District denied the request.

His behavior worsened in first grade, and the school informed D.D.’s mother that she could either retrieve D.D. from school because of his behavior or have a family member serve as his one-to-one aide in the classroom. D.D.’s mother’s partner, Albert, left his job to serve as D.D.’s aide. After D.D. spent seven days in a psychiatric facility, D.D.’s mother again unsuccessfully requested a one-to-one aide for him.

D.D.’s behavioral issues persisted through the second grade. His mother again sought accommodations, including a one-to-one aide or placement in a non-public school, which the District denied. Circumstances did not improve, and D.D. commonly left class and walked around the campus for almost the entire school day unattended.

D.D.’s mother requested a due process hearing before California’s Office of Administrative Hearings, Special Education Division, consistent with the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The Request described in detail the District’s asserted failures to provide D.D. with the evaluations, services, and programs necessary to provide him with a free appropriate public education despite the goals and assessments specified in his Individualized Education Program. The Request also sought (1) funding or reimbursement for various assessments and evaluations, (2) compensatory education services, (3) damages for violations of the Rehabilitation Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and Unruh Civil Rights Act, and (4) “any other remedies deemed appropriate by the hearing officer assigned to this case.”

D.D. and the District negotiated a settlement agreement resolving all claims arising under the IDEA and all California special education statutes and regulations.” The agreement expressly did not “release any claims for damages required to be asserted in a court of law and which could not have been asserted in proceedings under the IDEA and/or California special education statutes and regulations,” including “any claims that can be made under” the ADA.

D.D. later filed a lawsuit against the District and alleged violations of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. He amended his complaint and sought only damages for disability discrimination under the ADA.

The District filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and argued D.D.’s lawsuit mirrored the due process complaint and sought a free appropriate public education. The trial court dismissed the complaint and held D.D. must exhaust the administrative appeals process for his claim. D.D. appealed.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals considered whether the essence of D.D.’s claim was equality of access to public facilities or adequacy of special education. If the former, the lawsuit alleged a violation of ADA, and D.D. could proceed with the lawsuit contrary to the original ruling of the trial court. If the latter, the lawsuit alleged a violation of IDEA, which required D.D. to exhaust the administrative appeals process and the trial court correctly dismissed the lawsuit.

Here, D.D.’s lawsuit alleged only a violation of the ADA and summarized his discrimination claim in language that reflected the broader access requirements of the ADA and the obligation to give individuals who have disabilities equal opportunity to participate in public programs. Specifically, the complaint alleged the District violated the ADA “by failing to provide D.D. with reasonable accommodations, auxiliary aids, and services that he needed in order to enjoy equal access to the benefits of a public education and to otherwise not exclude D.D. from its educational program.” Additionally, the factual allegations in the lawsuit indicated that the impetus of D.D.’s lawsuit was his loss of educational opportunity “because he was banished from his classrooms, rather than deficiencies in his individualized educational program.” The lawsuit did not contain any references to the allegedly inadequate educational programs and IEP-related services that were addressed in the Request. Stated simply, the lawsuit repeatedly highlighted D.D.’s exclusion from the classroom, not the inadequacy of his experience in the classroom.

The Court of Appeals found the complaint supported a conclusion that D.D.’s lawsuit did not implicate the educational program of the IEP and, hence, his ADA discrimination claim did not require exhaustion pursuant to IDEA requirements. Additionally, the Court of Appeal found that D.D.’s agreement with the District expressly preserved his right to make any claims under the ADA.

The Court also considered D.D.’s lawsuit using the test laid out by the Supreme Court in Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch. (2017) __ U.S. __ [137 S. Ct. 743, 748]. The Court determined D.D.’s lawsuit sought to enforce the ADA’s “promise of non-discriminatory access to public institutions” rather than the IDEA’s “guarantee of individually tailored educational services.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal held D.D. has alleged a cognizable claim under the ADA, and the trial court erred in dismissing his complaint. It vacated the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint and remanded the case for further proceedings.

D. D. v. Los Angeles Unified Sch. Dist. (2020) __ F.3d __ [2020 WL 7776924].

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