In a recent decision interpreting the intricacies of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §794, and Section 1415(l) of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. 1415(l), a split panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit determined that a claim for damages resulting from a school district’s refusal to accommodate a child’s service dog did not require exhaustion of administrative remedies as a prerequisite to bringing suit.
The majority opinion, heavily analyzing the 2017 Supreme Court decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S.Ct. 743 (2017), determined that the harm alleged by the school district’s actions did not involve the denial of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”), which would require exhaustion, but rather simple discrimination, compensable by the Rehabilitation Act. A sharply worded dissent criticized the majority opinion for viewing the plaintiffs’ discrimination claim independently, as opposed to in composite with their other claims that more clearly appeared to claim the denial of a FAPE. The majority opinion clarifies and acknowledges that protections of non-FAPE rights in schools must be held separately from IDEA’s exhaustion requirements. This decision will assist future student-plaintiffs with recognizing their rights to rapidly obtain judicial intervention in the face of discriminatory, yet non-FAPE oriented rights.
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