Sorta Toolbox Tuesday!

Well, this may not be the kind of Toolbox Tuesday entry you’re accustomed to, but it involves a special education lawsuit and so we’ll go with it!

The case, Smith v. Rockwood R-VI Sch. Dist., _ F.3d __, No. 17-2260, 2018 WL 3371842 (8th Cir. July 11, 2018), is a published decision out of the Eighth Circuit and so we thought it would be a good one to tell you about.   It also provides some insight on how courts are interpreting last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., on the issue of IDEA exhaustion requirements.

In this case, the mother of a special education student sued for violations of the IDEA, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, stemming from the student’s disciplinary suspension.  The student was first suspended for ten days.  Shortly thereafter, an MDR determined that the suspension was for conduct that manifested from his disability.  Instead of readmitting the student or considering modification of his behavior intervention plan, the student received an additional 180 days of out-of-school suspension. The parent then filed a due process complaint and the parties privately resolved the case.

Plaintiffs then filed suit in federal district court, but the court dismissed the suit because the plaintiffs had not fully exhausted their administrative remedies under the IDEA.

On appeal, the main issue was whether the Section 504 and § 1983 claims were really seeking relief for the denial of a free appropriate public education, which is the test the U.S. Supreme Court established in Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch.  To determine whether a complaint seeks redress for the denial of a public education, the courts “look to the substance, or gravamen, of the plaintiff’s complaint,” said the Supreme Court.

The parent argued that the Rehabilitation Act and § 1983 claims alleged disability discrimination, not the denial of a public education, but the 8th Circuit disagreed.  The court looked to the lawsuit which stated that “[a]s a direct and proximate result of the long-term suspension, G.S. was excluded from and deprived of educational benefits”, and that “G.S. was excluded from participating in, and was denied the benefits of, the program of education…” Although the suit alleged “disability discrimination” in other sections of the complaint, the gravamen of the complaint was the denial of a public education.

Because the Rehabilitation Act and § 1983 claims concerned the denial of a public education, the parent should have exhausted administrative remedies as to those claims.  In addition, simply because the plaintiffs requested monetary relief unavailable under the IDEA, that did not absolve them of their obligation to fully exhaust under the IDEA.  The court observed that “the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement remains the general rule, regardless of whether the administrative process offers the particular type of relief that is being sought.”  The parent, here, had settled the IDEA claims at the due process level rather than exhaust them and so the lawsuit was subject to dismissal.


Tomorrow:      Fun times with student cell phone searches!