Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Fry V. Napoleon Community Schools: Finding a Middle Ground

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Fry V. Napoleon Community Schools: Finding a Middle Ground

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

The Supreme Court clarified and liberalized access to courts for students with disabilities in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools.* It held that parties bringing claims under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA")2 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act ("Section 504")3 do not need to exhaust the administrative procedures of the Individuals with Disabilities Act ("IDEA")4 before filing suit unless the gravamen, or substance, of the suit seeks redress for the denial of a free appropriate public education.5 While this is a significant victory for students with disabilities, the Court did not liberalize access to courts or school liability as much as it could have. Instead, it found a middle ground for both court access and the obligations schools owe students with disabilities.

The decision is significant on two fronts. First, it opens the courtroom door to students asserting ADA and Section 504 claims by excusing them from having to wind their way through the often time-consuming and onerous administrative due process procedures of the IDEA. The prevailing view among the circuits prior to Fry made it very difficult, if not near impossible, for many 504 and ADA claims to proceed directly to court if they were asserted by a child eligible under the IDEA. This is a significant victory for students and parents that need immediate and efficient relief from disability discrimination. But the Court's measured approach-requiring a determination of the gravamen of the plaintiffs complaint rather than just accepting the relief sought by the plaintiff at face value-does not throw the courtroom doors wide open. Part I of this essay explains the Fry decision, the new exhaustion requirement, the critical issues it left undecided, and its impact going forward.

The second and equally important impact of the Fry decision is the Court's heightened recognition of the differences between the protections afforded by the ADA and Section 504 on the one hand, and the IDEA on the other. The interplay of these three independent but overlapping statutes has confounded courts, including the Supreme Court, for years. It is well understood that the IDEA contains affirmative obligations for states to provide a limited class of eligible students with disabilities a "free appropriate public education," or "FAPE." It is equally understood that the ADA and Section 504 protect a broader class of students with disabilities against discrimination by requiring schools to provide such students with reasonable accommodations. What has been unclear is whether schools automatically meet their non-discrimination obligations to a student under Section 504 and the ADA when they provide a FAPE to that student under the IDEA. The Supreme Court definitively answered this question in the negative, but did not go as far as it could have to expand liability for schools. It recognized that Section 504 and the ADA impose independent accommodation obligations beyond the provision of FAPE, but also implied that the overlapping FAPE requirements of the statutes are identical. Part II of this essay explains how the Fry decision advances the understanding of how these statutes overlap, and how they do not, and firmly establishes that compliance with the affirmative obligations of the IDEA does not necessarily mean compliance with the non-discrimination provisions of Section 504 and the ADA.

Some background statutory explanation is necessary before diving into the decision. The IDEA compels schools to provide a "free appropriate public education" to all eligible students with disabilities.6 This FAPE comprises "special education and related services" to meet the unique needs of the child.7 If a dispute arises between the parents and the school regarding the provision of FAPE, the parent must follow a precise set of administrative procedures before he or she can file suit in court: file a complaint, participate in a preliminary meeting, participate in a due process hearing in front of an impartial hearing officer, and administratively appeal any adverse decision if such an appeal is available in the state. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.