“You only get one shot.” Or sometimes more… The Fifth Circuit finds an ADA FAPE claim may be viable despite an IDEA FAPE finding

The intersection and interplay of the IDEA, ADA, and Section 504 can be complicated and confusing. All three laws provide protections to students with disabilities in public schools. But how are their requirements different? And when can families go to court versus when must they exhaust administrative remedies? What remedies are available under each? A year ago, the Supreme Court decided Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, weighing in on when administrative exhaustion is required. That decision altered the paradigm of IDEA exhaustion and the interaction of these laws protecting students with disabilities.   

The Fifth Circuit recently joined the fray on this developing intersection of laws in Lartigue v. Northside Independent School District. The Fifth Circuit held that even though a hearing officer found that the district provided the student FAPE under the IDEA (and the student did not appeal that finding), the student might still be able to prove a violation of the ADA related to her accommodations. The decision scraps the previous understanding that the provision of IDEA FAPE was a defense to FAPE claims under Section 504 and the ADA. The school district has requested that the Fifth Circuit rehear the case en banc.

The Supreme Court Finds IDEA Exhaustion Not Required When Parents Seek Money Damages Under ADA and Section 504

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held today that plaintiffs may file federal lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 seeking money damages without first exhausting the IDEA administrative procedures, even when the underlying dispute is the student’s special education programming. As we previewed in a post following the oral argument, this decision is a departure from current Fifth Circuit law and opens the door to parents filing federal lawsuits seeking monetary relief in special education disputes without filing for due process under the IDEA. As explained below, whether this path is truly advantageous for parents is uncertain.

The Supreme Court Reconsiders the IDEA Exhaustion Doctrine

On Wednesday, January 18, 2023, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, a case out of Michigan (Sixth Circuit) involving the administrative exhaustion doctrine under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”)  Before the Court were two important issues: (1) whether parents can avoid having to exhaust their administrative remedies under the IDEA (by filing for and litigating a due process hearing) by asking for monetary damages in a lawsuit brought under a different statute (such as Section 504 or the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)); and (2) whether settling a due process hearing constitutes “exhaustion” of the administrative process, such that parents who have settled with the school could then file a subsequent Section 504 or ADA lawsuit.  Some of these issues – particularly whether asking for monetary damages essentially negates the exhaustion requirement – were left over from the Court’s previous exhaustion decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools.

Masks in Schools are Done! Or Are They? Continued Masking Requirements under Section 504 and ADA

With the federal government and state and local governments lifting mask requirements, it feels like we may be coming to the end of a two-year masking nightmare in schools. As cases begin to decline, schools across the country are allowing staff and students to come to school mask-free. When it comes to medically-fragile students, however, the risks of COVID-19 may continue for a long time after the rest of the world has moved on from the virus. What responsibilities remain for schools to require masking in the school environment to protect students with disabilities?