Plaintiffs must exhaust administrative proceedings under Rehabilitation Act

The U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a decision reached by a U.S. District Court in favor of one of the firm's clients.  The decision involved a lawsuit against a school board brought by a grandmother who claimed her grandson had not received a free appropriate public education (FAPE) as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  Lanier Ford attorney Rod Lewis represented the school board.

After a number of years of providing special education services to the grandson, the Limestone County School Board informed a grandmother that her grandson was no longer eligible for services under the IDEA.  However, the board did find that her grandson was eligible for services under the Rehabilitation Act.

In a letter, the grandmother requested a due-process hearing about the decision under the IDEA, but did not mention anything about the Rehabilitation Act, except to point out that the school board had found her grandson eligible for services under the Rehabilitation Act.  A due-process hearing was held; and the hearing officer found that the board’s decision was correct, ruling that the grandson was not eligible for services under the IDEA.

At that point, the grandmother filed suit in federal court claiming both violations of the IDEA and the Rehabilitation Act.  The U.S. District Court affirmed the hearing officer’s decision in favor of the school board.  (The hearing officer’s decision concerned only eligibility under the IDEA.)  The court also indicated that the plaintiff had not exhausted her administrative remedies under the Rehabilitation Act and therefore the court could not order her requested remedy for those claims.

At this point, the plaintiff appealed the district court’s decision to the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, but limited her appeal to the district court’s ruling about the Rehabilitation Act claims.  The appeals court affirmed the district court’s ruling, finding that the Rehabilitation Act claims were not addressed at all during the administrative hearing.  Furthermore, the court pointed out that the exhaustion requirement served several important functions:

  1. It permits the school board to exercise discretion and expertise in areas requiring those characteristics.
  2. It allows full development of technical issues and a factual record before a court review.
  3. It prevents deliberate disregard and circumvention of procedures established by Congress.
  4. It avoids unnecessary judicial decisions by giving the school board the opportunity to correct any error.

Because the plaintiff had not requested a due-process hearing for the Rehabilitation Act claims, she could not yet pursue any civil action in court based on those claims.

For more information, see Laura A. v. Limestone County Board of Education, decided April 28, 2015.

Download a copy of the decision.

© 2015

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Published April 29, 2015 Posted in News About the Law, Education & School Law
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