In the recent case of Doucette v. Georgetown Pub. Sch., No. 18-1160 (1st Cir. 2019), the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals issued a very important decision regarding the concept of “exhaustion.” Previously, the rule of thumb for special education attorneys was that if a case involved Section 504 or ADA claims by a student against a school district, the case needed to be heard by the Bureau of Special Education Appelas (“BSEA”) (or in New Hampshire, the Department of Education (“DOE”)) before it could be heard in federal court. This was true, even if the BSEA / DOE did not have the authority to grant the requested remedy, such as damages. Doucette applied and extended the reasoning outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., 137 S. Ct. 743, 197 L.Ed.2d 46 (2017).
[Note: For purposes of this blog article, I will be referring to the BSEA. However, since both Massachusetts and New Hampshire are part of the 1st Circuit, everything discussed applies to both the Massachusetts BSEA and the New Hampshire DOE.]
Concept of Exhaustion
If you are the parent of a special education child, you probably know all about exhaustion, but more from the perspective of physical or emotional fatigue. The legal concept of exhaustion is quite different. In the law, exhaustion is short for “exhaustion of administrative remedies.” Black’s Law Dictionary defines “exhaustion of remedies” as:
The doctrine that, if an administrative remedy is provided by statute, a claimant must seek relief first from the administrative body before judicial relief is available.Black’s Law Dictionary, 594 (Bryan A. Garner ed., 7th ed., West 1999)
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) is the federal set of laws governing special education. 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. IDEA does contain such an exhaustion requirement:
Nothing in [the IDEA] shall be construed to restrict or limit the rights,Fry, 137 S.Ct. at 750, quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l)
procedures, and remedies available under the Constitution, the [ADA], title V of the Rehabilitation Act [including § 504 ], or other Federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities, except that before the filing of a civil action under such laws seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA], the [IDEA’s administrative procedures] shall be exhausted to the same extent as would be required had the action been brought under [the IDEA].
In other words, if you are claiming that the school district owes your child something because the district violated the ADA or Section 504, and if you could also make a similar claim and get similar relief under IDEA, you need to start your legal proceedings at the BSEA / DOE. But what if the relief you are seeking is available under the ADA / 504, but is not available under IDEA – for example, financial damages (hearing officers are not authorized to award damages)? The case law in the First Circuit has generally held that you still need to start at the BSEA / DOE, if for no other reason than just to establish the administrative record for the benefit of the federal court.
- If the gravamen of a Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) claim does not involve the denial of a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”), does the plaintiff still need to exhaust administrative remedies through the BSEA before proceeding to federal court?
- If pursuing a case at the BSEA would be futile, must the parents still exhaust their administrative remedies at the BSEA before proceeding to federal court?
- The student, B.D., had a rare genetic disorder which caused numerous physical and developmental disabilities, and increased the risk of sudden unexpected death correlated with seizure activity.
- B.D. attended elementary school in Georgetown between the ages of three and six (July 2009 through August 2012). He was on an IEP. Parents and school district disagreed about his services.
- Parents temporarily removed B.D. from school in May 2010, and filed for hearing at the BSEA in July 2010. Parents sought an out-of-district placement. The BSEA Hearing Officer agreed that the IEP was inadequate, but did not order a new placement.
- In the fall of 2011, B.D. began working with a service dog to help him with anxiety and balance, and to alert caretakers of any impending seizures. In November 2011, Parents requested that the school district permit the dog at school as a disability accommodation. The school district initially refused outright, but then offered access to the service animal if the parents agreed to a school policy regarding the dog’s handling. The parents refused that offer, and claimed that the school district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The school district then ordered a behavioral assessment to take place during the following school year to determine whether his IEP should be amended to include a service dog.
- J.B. Comment: It is unclear from the decision what the school district’s policy was, or why the parents believed that the policy violated the ADA. Footnote 8 of the decision provides some foreshadowing by stating that this issue “will undoubtedly be an important issue to the future viability of the Doucettes’ section 504 claim, but it is not an issue in this appeal.”
- J.B. Comment: It is not clear from the decision how much time elapsed from November 2011 until the school district ordered a behavioral assessment, and then from the time that the assessment was ordered until the following school year when the district actually intended for the assessment to occur.
- In the summer of 2012, when B.D. was participating in the school district’s ESY program (i.e. summer school), he experienced a tonic-clonic seizure for over 20 minutes and required hospitalization. Parents demanded an immediate amendment to the IEP to grant him access to a service dog. This request was denied, but the district offered to allow the dog if the mother would act as the dog’s handler. After the denial, and into September 2012, B.D. suffered four more seizures
- J.B. Comment: An argument can be made that since the parents were requesting an amendment to the IEP, this became a FAPE issue. On the other hand, they were not the ones who initially requested an update to the IEP – it was the school district that responded to the Parents’ initial request for a service dog accommodation by suggesting a possible amendment to the IEP. Basically, the school district drew the Parents into a FAPE disagreement.
- B.D. continued to have seizures and hospitalizations. The parents eventually removed B.D. from school and again requested an alternative school placement. B.D.’s doctor wrote a letter expressing concern about the school district’s ability to handle B.D.’s health and safety, and recommended that B.D. be kept out of school until a safe placement could be identified. The school district wrote back that any extended absences would be considered truancy.
- In September 2012, Parents relented, and sent B.D. back to school. However, he had yet another tonic-clonic seizure, requiring hospitalization. Finally, the school district agreed to evaluate out-of-district placements, and in fact agreed to a new placement. B.D. did not experience any further seizures following removal from the school district.
- In 2015, the Doucettes filed suit in U.S. District Court alleging (1) state law tort claims, as well as federal claims under (2) Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and (3) 42 USC §1983.
- The District Court ruled against the parents on their federal law claims, stating that the parents failed to exhaust the IDEA administrative remedies. The court also declined to exercise pendent jurisdiction over the state law claims.
Summary of Key Regulations and Statutes Referenced in the Decision
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (29 USC §794): Section 504 requires public entities (including, but not limited to schools) to make reasonable modifications to their existing practices in order to accommodate disabled persons. Such modifications include support services. Alexander v. Choate, 469 US 287, 299 – 300 (1985). “IDEA guarantees individually tailored educational services, while Title II and § 504 promise non-discriminatory access to public institutions.” Fry, 137 S. Ct. at 756.
- Section 1983: This applies to everyone within the United States (not just disabled individuals), protecting everybody from deprivation of any federal rights by anyone acting under state law.
- Exhaustion Requirement: This concept is described above. The U.S. Supreme Court, in its Fry decision, provided the following guidance regarding exhaustion:
- The key to determining whether exhaustion at the state administrative level must occur is whether the gravamen of the claim concerns FAPE. If it does concern FAPE, then exhaustion must occur at the state administrative level before a claim can be made in federal court; if it does not concern FAPE, then the case can proceed directly to federal court without exhaustion at the state administrative level. Fry 137 S. Ct. at 754.
- The Supreme Court provided two “clues” to determine whether the case is related to FAPE:
- “could the plaintiff have brought essentially the same claim if the alleged conduct that occurred at a public facility that was not school?” and
- “could an adult at the school… Have pressed essentially the same grievance?”. Id. at 756 – 757.
Doucette § 504 Analysis
Regarding the 504 claim, the Doucette court looked to the Fry “clues” to determine that the 504 claim was not related to FAPE, and therefore exhaustion was not required. First, the the court stated that the plaintiff could have brought essentially the same claim against any public facility – not just a school. For example, if a movie theater, restaurant, hotel, or store failed to accommodate somebody by not allowing a service dog, that facility would be subject to a similar claim in federal court, without the plaintiff having to exhaust claims at the state administrative level. Doucette at 17 – 19. This reasoning is similar to Fry, where the “complaint alleges only disability-based discrimination, without making any reference to the adequacy of the special education services…” Fry at 137 S. Ct. at 758.
Doucette also utilized the second clue from Fry. Specifically, the court stated that a nonstudent (e.g. a teacher) could bring essentially the same claim against the school district if they were denied use of a service dog. Doucette p. 18.
The majority decision in Doucette also addressed several other arguments. One argument was that because the Doucettes previously engaged in a BSEA due process hearing regarding FAPE in 2010, the current dispute regarding the service dog must be related and must also concern FAPE. The court disagreed. The majority pointed out that the Doucettes did not raise the service dog issue until November 2011, well after the BSEA due process decision was issued. Id. at 20 – 21.
Another argument addressed by the court was that because the Doucettes eventually requested that B.D.’s IEP be updated to include reference to a service animal, the gravamen of their complaint concerned FAPE (and therefore exhaustion would be required). The court disagreed. The majority pointed out that the Doucettes initially requested the service dog without reference to the IEP. It was the school district that responded to the Doucette’s service dog request by ordering an assessment to take place to determine whether the IEP should be updated. Id. at 22.
Regarding the pure 504 vs. FAPE discussion, the majority pointed out that a student at risk of seizures who needs a service dog in school is not much different, legally, than a wheelchair-bound student who requires ramps in order to get into the school building. Neither case concerns educational services; both cases concern access. Id. at 23.
The mere fact that a student might require both accommodations under Section 504 and educational services under IDEA does not mean that all claims related to the student and the school must be exhausted at the state administrative level. To have such a requirement would discriminate against disabled students. Id. at 24 – 25.
Plain and simple, the 504 claim concerned a public institution’s denial of nondiscriminatory access to an individual by failing to accommodate use of a service dog, and the harm (i.e. seizures) that resulted from that denial; the 504 claim did not concern the school district’s obligation to provide a particular education program (i.e. FAPE). Doucette at 16 – 17.
Doucette § 1983 Analysis
Unlike the § 504 claim, the §1983 claim was very much related to FAPE. Here, the parents made a claim that the school district had notice that the placement was inappropriate, and that the district’s refusal to allow a different placement, and subsequent threatening of truancy, “amounted to ‘deliberate indifference in severe, pervasive disregard for [the] safety and well-being [of] B.D.’ and that, as a result, B.D. ‘suffer[ed] great physical and emotional harm,’ including ‘five [ ] life-threatening tonic-clonic seizures.’” Doucette at pp. 26 – 27. The Doucette court applied the Fry clues to conclude that FAPE was very much an issue. Doucette at 27.
Nonetheless, the court still ruled that the plaintiffs were not required to file at the state administrative level for several reasons:
1. Exhaustion was met. The Doucettes had a due process hearing in 2010. In July 2012, they again requested an alternative placement. They again brought the dispute to the attention of the local school district. They eventually received the relief they were looking for. However, the § 1983 claim did not concern whether the placement was appropriate or not; it concerned the harm that B.D. suffered as a result of the school district’s delay in providing the relief. Doucette at pp. 30 – 31.
2. Exhaustion was not necessarily even required. The Doucettes were seeking relief that was not available to them under IDEA – money damages for physical or emotional harm. Therefore, “§1415 (l) does not appear to require exhaustion of the Doucette’s constitutional claim…” Id. at 32.
3. Pursuing a claim at the state administrative level would have been futile. Hearing officers do not have the authority to provide the relief that the Doucettes were seeking. They are not authorized to award money damages for physical or emotional harm. Id. at 32. Hearing officers are limited to providing equitable relief in the form of educational services, compensatory services, and reimbursement for education -related expenses. Id. at 34.
The court acknowledged that FAPE-based claims can benefit from the administrative process, because such a hearing will develop the evidentiary record based on the specialized knowledge of education professionals. However, the court stated that such a record had already been developed through the 2010 due process hearing, as well as through the Doucette’s 2012 pursuit of an educational placement.
JB Comment: On the one hand, this particular argument seems ripe for appeal. Part of the record that the court refers to was not developed under oath, or in front of the hearing officer. The court is simply referring to documents which often become evidence that a hearing officer will weigh in a due process hearing. On the other hand, even if the court will benefit from further litigation in order to develop the evidentiary record, this one issue alone does not seem to be vital enough to require the cost and delay of further litigation at the state level. In fact, an alternative argument could be made that engaging in such litigation, knowing that a hearing officer does not have the authority to award the relief requested, amounts to frivolous litigation that only serves to increase the cost to both sides.
The Doucette decision is very important for special education cases which involve non-FAPE matters in the 1st Circuit. If an attorney representing a parent is considering whether to file a claim in federal court before litigating the issue at the BSEA / DOE, the attorney should first apply and analyze the clues provided by the Supreme Court in Fry, and applied in the 1st Circuit in Doucette.
The Law Office of James M. Baron represents students and parents in special education and other school-related legal matters throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Please visit https://www.lawbaron.com, or call 781-209-1166 for more information.