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E. D. v. Palmyra R-I School District

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

January 3, 2019

E. D., a Minor, by and through his Parents and Next Friends Anthony Dougherty and Katherine D. Dougherty; Anthony Dougherty, individually and as Parent of E.D.; Katherine D. Dougherty, individually and as Parent of E.D. Plaintiffs - Appellants
v.
Palmyra R-I School District Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: September 26, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - Hannibal

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, MELLOY and STRAS, Circuit Judges.

          STRAS, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         At issue here is what parents must do if they decide to sue a school district after refusing special-education services for their child under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"). Even if they bring a lawsuit under a different disability-discrimination law, we conclude that they still must exhaust their administrative remedies if the relief they seek is "also available" under the IDEA. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l). Accordingly, we affirm the district court's[1] grant of summary judgment to Palmyra R-I School District.

         I.

         E.D. has Down Syndrome. Before he began kindergarten at Palmyra Elementary School, his mother informed the school that she was seeking accommodations for his disability. E.D.'s parents had some specific accommodations in mind, though, and made clear that they wanted E.D. placed in a regular classroom without special-education instruction.

         They sought what they referred to as a "section 504 plan"-after section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act-which would have provided E.D. with some of the educational accommodations otherwise available under the IDEA but without the specialized classes. All they wanted was for E.D. to be able to use an iPad "to compensate for his speech and fine motor delays" and for his teachers to integrate his iPad into their lessons.

         The negotiations between E.D.'s parents and the school lasted for approximately a year. Twice the school offered an IDEA plan-more commonly known as an Individualized Education Program or "IEP"-instead of the section 504 plan his parents envisioned. The IEPs would have provided all the iPad-related accommodations his parents sought but would have required him to attend special-education classes. E.D.'s parents rejected both IEPs. The second time, they reiterated their desire for a section 504 plan. Palmyra again refused, and with no resolution in sight, E.D.'s parents pulled him out of school just two weeks after he started first grade.

         Not long thereafter, the dispute landed in court. E.D.'s parents sued and alleged that Palmyra had violated section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. At the heart of their lawsuit was the claim that, by failing to provide educational accommodations, Palmyra had denied E.D. "access to a free public education."

         In their complaint, E.D.'s parents sought what they had all along: for E.D. to use an iPad to complete his classroom assignments and for his teachers to adapt their teaching methods to incorporate it. They also requested additional accommodations, including a change to the school's testing formats to account for E.D.'s "speech [and] fine motor issues" and more time for him to complete his "assignments, tests[, ] and homework."

         Palmyra moved for summary judgment on the theory that E.D.'s parents had failed to exhaust the IDEA's administrative procedures. Even though E.D.'s parents had neither sued nor accepted services under the IDEA, Palmyra claimed that they were still required to exhaust their administrative remedies because they were seeking "relief that is also available under [the IDEA]." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l). E.D.'s parents viewed their refusal to accept services as a total opt-out, excusing any failure to comply with the IDEA's procedural requirements. The district court disagreed and granted summary judgment to Palmyra. We now review de novo whether E.D.'s parents had to exhaust their administrative remedies before suing. Nelson v. Charles City Cmty. Sch. Dist., 900 F.3d 587, 591 (8th Cir. 2018).

         II.

         The IDEA requires schools receiving federal funds to provide a "free appropriate public education" to all children who have qualifying disabilities. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). Because parents and schools do not always agree about the best way to provide a child with a free appropriate public education, "the IDEA establishes formal procedures for resolving disputes." Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Schs., 137 S.Ct. 743, 749 (2017). Included among them are a "due process hearing" before an impartial official and, in certain circumstances, an appeal to a state agency. 20 U.S.C. ยง ...


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