Third Circuit Rules Discrimination Claims Subject to IDEA Exhaustion Requirement

In S.D. v. Haddon Heights Board of Education, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that claims that a board of education discriminated against a student and his parents based on his disability, and retaliated against them for enforcing the child’s rights under various federal laws, are subject to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) exhaustion requirement.

Third Circuit Rules Discrimination Claims Subject to IDEA Exhaustion Requirement

The Facts of the Case

The parents of S.D. (“Appellants”) filed suit against Haddon Heights Board of Education, alleging violations of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the First and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The suit maintained that the school board failed to provide special instruction to meet S.D.’s educational needs arising from his disability and created a school attendance policy that unfairly discriminated against him. The District Court concluded that the Appellants’ claims required compliance with the IDEA’s administrative process and dismissed the claims without prejudice for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Exhaustion Requirements Under the IDEA

As outlined by the Third Circuit, the IDEA aims to “ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs…” The statute requires states to satisfy several requirements, including making available a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to children with disabilities and ensuring that such children and their parents are provided with due process, as a condition of receiving federal education funding.

If a child’s parents believe that a school has not fulfilled its statutory obligations, the IDEA provides them an avenue to file a complaint and obtain an administrative hearing. After exhausting this administrative hearing process, “[a]ny party aggrieved by the findings and decision[s]” made during the hearing may seek judicial review in federal court.

Notably, the IDEA requires exhaustion of the administrative hearing process not only in actions brought directly under the IDEA, but also “in non-IDEA actions where the plaintiff seeks relief that can be obtained under the IDEA.” As explained by the Third Circuit in Batchelor v. Rose Tree Media School District, 759 F.3d 266 (3d Cir. 2014), “This provision bars plaintiffs from circumventing [the] IDEA’s exhaustion requirement by taking claims that could have been brought under [the] IDEA and repackaging them as claims under some other statute.”

The Court’s Decision

The Third Circuit affirmed the District Court decision. “Because Appellants’ alleged injuries are educational in nature and implicate services within the purview of the IDEA, we conclude that Appellants’ claims must be exhausted under the IDEA,” the panel held.

In reaching its decision, the Third Circuit invoked the “strong policy” encouraging exhaustion of administrative remedies in these types of cases.  The Court explained that parents who challenge a school’s provision of a FAPE and allege retaliation, should first seek review from the school itself.  The Court provided that, “…remediation of the alleged educational deficiencies is best addressed in the first instance by educational professionals, rather than a court.”

The Court also rejected several arguments raised by the Appellants. The Third Circuit dismissed the argument that S.D. is ineligible for IDEA services and therefore relief is not “available” to them under the IDEA, highlighting that the Appellants’ claims about S.D.’s disability and its impact on his education implicated the statutory entitlements of the IDEA.

The Third Circuit also rejected the argument that a FAPE under the ADA and Section 504 differs from the FAPE defined by the IDEA and, therefore, their ADA and Section 504 claims cannot be remedied through the IDEA administrative process. As noted by the Court, the IDEA’s substantive protections overlap with those of Section 504 and the ADA. The panel also highlighted that “the theory behind Appellants’ grievances focuses in large part on Appellee’s failure to provide special instruction to meet S.D.’s educational needs arising from his disability, so that their claims relate to the provision of a FAPE as defined by the IDEA.”

Finally, the Third Circuit rejected the argument that the conclusion that S.D.’s educational injuries could be remedied through the IDEA administrative process assumes that the board violated its “Child Find” duty imposed by the IDEA. The Third Circuit declined “to equate our finding that Appellants’ alleged educational harms could be remedied through the IDEA administrative process with a finding that Appellee violated its Child Find duty.

Although the case was dismissed because for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the Court provided that the Appellants could refile their claims after they exhaust the IDEA administrative process.

For more information about the court’s decision or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group.

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