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 student, who is deaf, attended schools in the district since the age of nine. When his parents learned that he would not graduate with a diploma, they filed a due process complaint alleging numerous deficiencies in the special education program. The parties reached a settlement agreement, releasing the student’s IDEA claims and providing for his continued education at a specialized school. The student then filed a federal lawsuit under the ADA seeking compensatory damages, also alleging the district failed to provide adequate educational services to the student.
The district court dismissed the lawsuit because the student had not exhausted the IDEA administrative process. The Sixth Circuit affirmed that decision, in line with precedent in that circuit. The Fifth Circuit has also previously held that a request for money damages does not excuse exhaustion.
What does the IDEA say?
The provision of the IDEA at issue states that the IDEA does not limit the rights and remedies available under the ADA or Section 504, but before filing a federal lawsuit under those laws “seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA],” a plaintiff must exhaust the IDEA procedures, meaning file a due process complaint and litigate a due process hearing.
What did the parties argue?
Perez argued that exhaustion is required if the plaintiff is seeking remedies that are available under the IDEA, and money damages are not an available remedy under the IDEA. That interpretation would mean exhaustion was not required for Perez, who was seeking monetary damages.
The District argued that exhaustion is required if the plaintiff is seeking relief for the same underlying harm that could be addressed under the IDEA. That interpretation would bar Perez’s lawsuit because he sought relief for an alleged failure to provide FAPE but had not exhausted the IDEA administrative process.
The Court turned to the language of the statute, which says that exhaustion is required when the “relief” requested is available under the IDEA. The Court analyzed whether the word “remedy” in the first clause of the provision is synonymous with the word “relief,” used in the second clause. Finding that “relief” means “remedy,” and that the remedy of monetary damages is not available under the IDEA, the Court determined that exhaustion is not required when such damages are sought, as Perez had argued. This determination departed from other cases, relied on by the District, which have viewed “relief” as more general than “remedy” such that when a claim deals with a denial of FAPE, the IDEA provides relief, even if it is not the specific remedy a plaintiff is seeking, and exhaustion is therefore required.
What about Fry v. Napoleon?
In Fry v. Napoleon, decided in 2017, the Court held that “exhaustion is not necessary when the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee – [FAPE].” The Court explained that when the “lawsuit seeks relief for the denial of a free and appropriate public education, …the plaintiff cannot escape the [IDEA procedures] merely by bringing her suit under a statute other than the IDEA.” In Fry, the Court reserved the question of whether exhaustion is required when a plaintiff alleges a denial of FAPE but requests relief that is not available under the IDEA, such as monetary damages.
In the Perez decision, the Court avers that Fry does not advance the District’s position, though it is difficult to see why. The Court states that Fry held that the exhaustion requirement does not apply unless the plaintiff “seeks relief for the denial of” FAPE “because that is the only ‘relief’” IDEA’s administrative processes can supply. Of course, in this case, Perez was seeking relief for a denial of FAPE and the IDEA administrative process provides relief for such harm, but not the particular relief he was seeking. So Perez does not explicitly overrule Fry, but for practical purposes, the rule articulated in Fry (that exhaustion is required if the thrust of the case is a denial of FAPE) is obsolete, or at least incomplete.
Questions and Impact
The impact of this decision is clear — Plaintiffs can avoid exhaustion of IDEA remedies by filing suit under the ADA or Section 504 and requesting monetary damages – even when the alleged harm stems from a denial of FAPE.
In addition, if a plaintiff files a federal suit under the ADA or Section 504 seeking equitable relief that IDEA provides (such as placement or compensatory education) and monetary damages, the Court seems to say that the request for equitable relief may (not must) be barred or deferred if the plaintiff has yet to exhaust the IDEA administrative process. This statement is troubling for two reasons. First, if the suit alleges a denial of FAPE and seeks equitable relief available under the IDEA, that is exactly the type of claim for which exhaustion is required by the text of the IDEA provision at issue here, so the Court’s statement that such a request “may” be denied or delayed absent exhaustion is perplexing. Second, if a court does require exhaustion of a plaintiff’s request for equitable remedies, the plaintiff could simultaneously pursue a due process hearing to obtain educational remedies and a federal lawsuit to obtain monetary damages. Such parallel litigation creates significant burdens for the parties as well as the potential for inconsistent outcomes.
Given that the Court’s decision now allows parents to go straight to court under the ADA or Section 504 to seek money damages in special education disputes, we expect an increase in such suits. Additionally, when districts negotiate settlement agreements in IDEA cases, potential ADA and Section 504 claims will also need to be considered and addressed; parents will likely make higher settlement demands to release all claims, which could significantly increase the liability for school districts in special education disputes.
However, note that the availability of money damages under Section 504 and the ADA is limited. While relief under the IDEA is premised on a denial of FAPE, compensatory damages under Section 504 and the ADA depend on a finding of deliberate indifference or intentional discrimination, a higher bar. Additionally, to the extent that plaintiffs seek money damages in the form of reimbursement for educational expenses, that relief is available through the IDEA procedures and exhaustion should not be excused. Further, to the extent that plaintiffs seek money damages for emotional distress, last year, in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, the Court found that such damages are not available under Section 504. In Perez, the Court declined to opine on whether the compensatory damages for emotional distress sought in this case are available under the ADA. Accordingly, it is not clear whether parents will find federal lawsuits under Section 504 and the ADA to be more favorable than pursuing a due process hearing under the IDEA.
If you have questions about exhaustion or other IDEA matters, please reach out to our Special Education Team.