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U.S. Supreme Court Unanimously Confirms That Special Education Students Also Retain Other Disability Rights Protections

Friday, February 24, 2017

On February 22, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous, 8-0 decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 15-497. The case involves the Handicapped Children's Protection Act (HCPA) of 1986, which enables plaintiffs to recover attorneys' fees from school districts when they prevail in special education cases. The HCPA requires "exhaustion" of state administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for non-IDEA actions "seeking relief that is also available" under the IDEA. First enacted in 1975, when it was known as the Education for All Handicapped Children's Act, the IDEA guarantees a range of special education rights to children whose disabilities affect learning.

The issue in the Fry case was whether the HCPA also requires exhaustion in lawsuits against school districts seeking damages under other disability rights laws (specifically, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act), given that damage remedies are not available under the IDEA.

The case arose from a dispute about whether E.F., a 5-year old student with cerebral palsy, could bring Wonder, her goldendoodle service dog, to kindergarten. The Fry family argued that E.F. was entitled to have the dog with her pursuant to the protections of general disability rights laws, contending that those protections were distinct from the child's entitlement to a "free and appropriate public education" under the IDEA. The school argued that the dispute about the service dog should be subject to the IDEA requirement to exhaust administrative remedies before a lawsuit can be filed.

In a decision written by Justice Elena Kagan, the high court sided with the family, confirming that "Important as the IDEA is for children with disabilities, it is not the only federal statute protecting their interests."

DREDF served as co-counsel in a Fry amicus brief submitted on behalf of former U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker, Jr., who took the lead in drafting, introducing and enacting the HCPA. A copy of that amicus is posted on the DREDF website, along with links to more information about the case.

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