Eastern District of New York Applies Fry in Interesting Case Involving Major Charter School
In this blog, we mostly write about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). Other federal and state laws, however, also protect students with special needs. These laws include the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The ADA and § 504 address discrimination against individuals with disabilities more broadly than the IDEA and are not limited to education, however ADA and § 504 claims often overlap with IDEA claims. Before a parent brings an IDEA claim in federal court, the IDEA requires the parent to exhaust administrative procedures. In New York, parents must first bring their IDEA claims before an impartial hearing officer and then appeal the claims to a state review officer before the parent can bring their claim in federal court. The ADA and § 504 have no administrative exhaustion requirements, but the IDEA (20 U.S.C. 1415(I)) still requires parents to exhaust the IDEA administrative procedures before they assert ADA or § 504 claims in federal court if those claims seek relief that is also available under the IDEA (i.e. a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) for their child). Consequently, a point of contention between parents and school districts is often whether a parent asserting disability discrimination claims under the ADA or § 504 is seeking relief available under the IDEA such that they should have exhausted their administrative remedies prior to suing the school district in federal court.
The United States Supreme Court in Fry v. Napoleon Comm. Schs., 137 S.Ct. 743, 748-49 (2017), addressed this issue. In Fry, a student with cerebral palsy and her parents brought disability discrimination claims under the ADA and § 504 in federal court for the school’s refusal to permit the student to bring her service animal to school. The defendant school district sought to dismiss the lawsuit because plaintiffs’ claims were related to the plaintiff-student’s education and therefore plaintiffs were required to exhaust the IDEA administrative procedures prior to bringing any claims in federal court. The Supreme Court addressed the standard to determine whether parents are required to exhaust their IDEA administrative procedures prior to bringing ADA and/or § 504 claims in federal court. The Fry Court held that plaintiffs are only required to exhaust their administrative remedies when the “gravamen” of their claims is denial of a FAPE. If a plaintiff brings an ADA or § 504 claim that alleges a standalone cause of action “independent of any FAPE denial, ” exhaustion is not required because “the only ‘relief' the IDEA makes ‘available' is relief for the denial of a FAPE.” Fry, 137 S.Ct. at 754-55. The Fry Court suggested that the answers to two questions may indicate the “gravamen” of a plaintiff’s complaint. “First, could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at a public facility that was not a school-say, a public theater or library? And second, could an adult at the school . . . have pressed essentially the same grievance?” Id. If the answers to these two questions are yes, the complaint likely does not involve a FAPE. Id. If no, it probably does. Id. After setting forth this standard, the Fry Court remanded the case to the lower court for additional fact-finding.
The United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York recently applied Fry on a motion to dismiss in an interesting case captioned Lawton v. Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc. et al., No 1:15-cv-07058(FB)(SMG) (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 1, 2018). The parents of several students that attended Success Academy Fort Greene in Brooklyn and named Success Academy Charter Schools, Success Academy Fort Greene, and Success Academy Fort Greene’s former principal, Candido Brown, as defendants. Plaintiffs alleged that the students struggled to comply with Success Academy’s strict disciplinary code and were repeatedly barred from the classroom as a result. The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiff-students were placed on a “Got to Go” list of problematic students and eventually pressured to withdraw from the school. The “Got to Go” list was reported on by the New York Times. Although not all of the plaintiffs had an IEP, the complaint alleges that each of the plaintiff-students were regarded as having a disability by Success.
Success sought to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims on the grounds that they asserted that Success failed to offer the plaintiff-students a FAPE and therefore plaintiffs were required to exhaust the IDEA administrative procedures prior to bringing their claims in federal district court. Applying Fry, the court, concluded that the “gravamen” of plaintiffs’ claims was intentional discrimination and retaliation against the plaintiffs based on the plaintiff-students’ perceived disabilities. The court summarized plaintiffs’ discrimination and retaliation-related allegations as follows:
“Plaintiffs allege that Brown placed them on a “Got to Go” list intended to remove them and “other Success Academy Fort Greene students with actual or perceived disabilities” from the school. SAC ¶ 121. They also allege that Brown “deliberately targeted their children for removal from Success Academy, ” SAC ¶ 120, and that he did so “because of” the students' “actual or perceived disabilities, ” SAC ¶ 122.”
In holding that plaintiffs need not exhaust their administrative remedies first, the court reasoned that “The disabled children would have a claim against a public library that placed them on a list of excluded patrons, used strict disciplinary rules to remove them on a daily basis, and threatened to call the police when faced with complains about the mistreatment. So would disabled adults.”
The case presents both an interesting application of Fry and is an interesting look inside a charter school network that has been accused of treating students with disabilities unfairly.