On January 3, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit handed down its decision in favor of the Palmyra R-I School District (“District” or “Palmyra”) in the case of E.D. et al. v. Palmyra R-I School District. The case was on appeal from the United States District Court, Eastern District of Missouri. In the underlying case at the District Court level, E.D., a former student of Palmyra, and his parents filed a complaint asserting claims against the District for disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”), seeking millions in damages from the District. The District filed for summary judgment on all claims primarily due to the fact that Plaintiffs did not exhaust their administrative remedies under the IDEA as required when bringing a claim for a violation of the Constitution under Section 1983, Section 504 or the ADA.
Under the IDEA, children with certain disabilities must be provided a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) designed to meet their unique needs. To ensure students with disabilities are provided an opportunity to obtain a FAPE, Congress established a system of procedural safeguards. The “primary vehicle” for providing a child with a FAPE under the IDEA is the development and implementation of an Individual Education Program (“IEP”). The other safeguards include an opportunity to present complaints concerning any aspect of the local agency’s provision of a FAPE and an opportunity for an impartial due process hearing with respect to any such complaints. Only after exhaustion of the administrative review process, may parents seek judicial review in a state or federal court. The mandatory requirement to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA prior to bringing a civil action in state or federal court applies not only to IDEA claims but to all claims which seek relief which is also available under the IDEA, even if the claims are alleged under a different statute or the Constitution. The Supreme Court made clear in Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Schs., 137 S. Ct. 743, 754 (2017), that if a lawsuit brings claims seeking relief for the denial of FAPE, then the claims must be exhausted first under the IDEA. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit agreed with Fry in its holding in J.M. v. Francis Howell School District, 850 F.3d 944 (2017).
On December 11, 2017, the District Court granted Palmyra’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the claims against Palmyra with prejudice, agreeing that the plaintiffs were required to exhaust their administrative remedies before filing their claims. The plaintiffs appealed on January 4, 2018, and primarily argued that they should not be required to exhaust their administrative remedies because they never wanted or consented to IDEA services. Following oral argument by the parties, in a unanimous opinion, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to Palmyra and confirmed that even if parents bring a lawsuit under a different disability discrimination law other than IDEA, they must still exhaust their administrative remedies if the relief they seek is “also available” under the IDEA. The Court opined: “We have little trouble concluding that the relief E.D.’s parents seek is available under the IDEA. IDEA exhaustion, as the Supreme Court has recently made clear, ‘hinges on whether a lawsuit seeks relief for a denial of a free appropriate public education.’” The Court further opined: “It makes no difference that they refused all services under the IDEA. Opting out of IDEA services does not unlock a pathway around exhaustion. Indeed, the statute on which E.D.’s parents most heavily rely, 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(1)(D), says only that the school must get the parents’ informed consent before providing services under the IDEA, not that a lack of consent will permit them to blow past the exhaustion requirement.” This case is consistent with the 8th Circuit’s previous decisions upholding the exhaustion requirement of the IDEA. Attorneys Wendy Boggiano and Sarah Schmanke represented the District in the district court case and on the appeal.