Supreme Court Updates

United States Supreme Court Limits Procedural Defense to Disability Discrimination Claims Brought by Students Receiving Special Education Services

In late February, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that IDEA eligible students are not required to exhaust the IDEA administrative procedures before suing a school district for disability discrimination claims that are unrelated to the denial of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”).  In Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, a student’s parents sued the school for disability discrimination for denying a special education student’s request to bring her service dog with her to school.  After reaffirming that the IDEA only permits substantive awards if the student has been denied a FAPE, the Court held that students and parents can proceed directly to court where the essence of the claim is not the denial of FAPE.  The Court announced two “clues” that courts can use to determine whether a claim truly asserts a denial of FAPE.  Applying those clues, the Court sent the case back to the lower court for additional factual determinations.

The Fry decision potentially limits a common defense used by schools against disability discrimination cases by special education students.  It also serves as a reminder that IDEA eligible students have rights under the ADA, Section 504, and other anti-discrimination laws, as well as the IDEA.  Now, as ever, it is important to ensure your district complies with all applicable statutory obligations.  School districts are encouraged to consult their legal counsel with any questions about how the Fry decision applies to them.

Accommodating Transgender Students: Post-Election Developments, and What School Districts Should Know Now.

The accommodation of transgender students remains one of the key developing legal issues for schools.  Over the past few years, school districts have received a near constant stream of guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.  This included a “Dear Colleague” letter that was transmitted to every public school district in the United States in May of 2016, which was subsequently withdrawn by the Trump administration in February 2017.  Multiple state and federal courts have also considered these issues, sometimes with conflicting opinions.  When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, a Title IX case involving a school district’s obligations toward transgender students, it appeared as though many of these legal ambiguities would be resolved.

On Monday, March 6, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment of the Fourth Circuit in G.G. without addressing the underling legal questions.  The Fourth Circuit held that a school district violated Title IX when it refused to permit a transgender student to use the restroom of their identified gender, rather than their assigned sex at birth.  The G.G. decision, however, relied on the 2016 “Dear Colleague” letter that the Department of Education recently withdrew.  In light of that development, the Supreme Court sent the case back down to the Fourth Circuit for further consideration of the issue in the absence of the “Dear Colleague” letter and other guidance.

This development means that the Supreme Court will not be squarely addressing the question of accommodating transgender students in the near future.  It also means that the lower courts will likely resume litigation of those cases that had been stayed pending the Supreme Court decision.  It is likely that at least one of those cases, regardless of the outcome, will eventually reach the Supreme Court.  It will, however, take time for the case or cases to make it to the Supreme Court.  In the interim, it is important for Minnesota school districts to remember that transgender students are entitled to certain protections under both state and federal law.  Transgender is a protected class under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and the Supreme Court has recognized that federal antidiscrimination statutes also provide a cause of action for failure to conform to sex stereotype claims.  Accommodation issues are often very fact-specific, and as such should be considered on a case-by-case basis.  In the absence of binding guidance from the courts or Congress, school districts should consult legal counsel with any questions or concerns.