Court of Appeals affirms requirement to exhaust IDEA administrative remedies in A.L. v. Clovis Unified School District

On March 18, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Clovis Unified School District in A.L. v. Clovis Unified School District, affirming the lower court’s dismissal of claims against the district.

In the case, a student filed claims of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504, and denial of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), among other claims. As the case progressed, the student settled her Individuals with Disabilities Education Act claims before a due process hearing, and thus without receiving an administrative decision on the merits. The student then filed suit in federal court on the ADA and Section 504 claims arising from largely the same facts at issue in the IDEA case. The district court applied the IDEA exhaustion requirement and dismissed the case for failure to state a claim.

The plaintiff argued on appeal before the Ninth Circuit that the district court should not have granted Clovis USD’s motion to dismiss, arguing that she was not required to exhaust administrative remedies before bringing her Section 504 and ADA claims in federal court; that settlement of IDEA claims should satisfy administrative exhaustion for purposes of both IDEA appeals, and Section 504 and ADA claims; and that failure to exhaust could not be raised until the summary judgment stage of the case, after the potentially lengthy and costly discovery of evidence has been completed. A ruling in favor of the plaintiff could have significantly increased the time and effort involved in litigation, as well as future litigation costs, for school districts in similar cases, so CSBA and its Education Legal Alliance filed an amicus brief before the Ninth Circuit in support of the district.

The Ninth Circuit found that the district court correctly concluded that the gravamen of the plaintiff’s claim was for the denial of a FAPE; that the plaintiff did not exhaust IDEA remedies because she settled her IDEA claims without receiving an administrative decision on the merits; and that because the appellants’ decision to settle in lieu of pursuing IDEA administrative remedies was “clear from the face of the complaint,” dismissal was proper.

Under current law, when the gravamen of a complaint is a request for relief for the denial of a FAPE, a substantive right created by IDEA, plaintiffs must exhaust IDEA administrative remedies before suing in federal court. This means that parents must complete the administrative steps required under IDEA before bringing a case in court.

Exhausting administrative remedies requires a plaintiff to proceed before an administrative tribunal, such as the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH), before filing an action in federal court. This allows for an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to hear the evidence presented and make a factual decision based upon the law from which the parties can appeal. Before filing a federal action under Section 504 or the ADA that seeks relief that is also available under the IDEA, a party must first administratively exhaust to the same extent as required by the IDEA. Dismissal or settlement of a special education due process hearing without an evidentiary hearing and decision from the OAH does not satisfy the requirement that a plaintiff exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA.

There are multiple reasons for the requirement to exhaust administrative remedies that benefit students and districts alike. OAH proceedings are more efficient than federal court hearings and aim to encourage students and school districts to resolve disputes regarding educational programs for students with disabilities expeditiously, thereby ensuring that students receive appropriate educational programming as quickly as possible. The Administrative Law Judges who preside over OAH proceedings are also experts in educational programs for students with disabilities, so application of the exhaustion requirement ensures that, if these claims reach federal court, federal judges have the benefit of an ALJ’s insight as to the appropriate educational program for such student. Courts have previously held that settling a claim before OAH does not constitute exhaustion, in part because one purpose of the exhaustion requirement is to ensure that federal courts have the benefit of an OAH decision when considering disputes regarding special education programming, and no such decision exists when the dispute settles.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision is an important win for school districts that affirms existing procedural requirements and protects against unnecessary future litigation costs in special education cases.