Protecting Student Rights, 5th Circuit Ruling on ADA FAPE vs IDEA FAPE

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Understanding the interplay between the IDEA, ADA, and Section 504 can be a complex task. These three laws aim to safeguard the rights of students with disabilities in public schools. However, their requirements differ, and understanding when families can seek legal recourse or when they must first exhaust administrative remedies can be challenging.

In this post, we’ll dissect the differences between ADA and IDEA based on the recent 5th circuit court rulings and discuss what this means for FAPE.

“Supreme Court held today that plaintiffs may file federal lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 seeking money damages without first exhausting the IDEA administrative procedures.” Source: Spedlawspotlight.com, March, 2023

Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, 2023

A year ago, the Supreme Court case Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools shed light on when administrative exhaustion is necessary. This decision significantly shifted the understanding of IDEA exhaustion and how these laws interact to protect students with disabilities.

Lartigue v. Northside Independent School District: A New Twist on IDEA vs. ADA Claims

A recent case has added a wrinkle to the legal landscape. In Lartigue v. Northside Independent School District (2023), the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a surprising decision. The court ruled that a student could potentially sue a school district under the ADA for failing to provide proper accommodations, even if a hearing officer already determined the school provided a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the IDEA.

This is a significant departure from prior understanding. Previously, courts often viewed an FAPE finding under the IDEA as a shield against similar claims brought under Section 504 or the ADA. The Lartigue decision suggests that these protections may not completely overlap. However, it’s important to note that the school district has requested a rehearing, so the final word on this issue may not be settled yet.

Lartigue Case Details: Hearing Impairment and Accommodation Issues

The Lartigue case centered around a student with a hearing impairment. Her Individualized Education Program (IEP) included various accommodations and assistive technology to help her participate in school activities. However, the student argued that many of these accommodations were not provided consistently, both in class and during extracurriculars.

A due process hearing found the school district fulfilled its IDEA obligations. The hearing officer determined the student received a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the IDEA. However, the hearing officer didn’t address Section 504 or ADA claims, as those fell outside their scope. Notably, the student didn’t appeal the IDEA finding but pursued a pre-existing lawsuit alleging ADA violations.

The Difference Between IDEA FAPE and ADA FAPE

The 5th Circuit Court clarified the difference between IDEA and ADA standards. The Court agreed with the lower court that the IDEA hearing focused on whether the student’s educational program allowed for progress.

In contrast, the ADA claim centered on whether the district discriminated against the student due to her disability.

These distinct goals meant that providing FAPE under the IDEA didn’t automatically guarantee compliance with the ADA, even though prior rulings in the 5th Circuit suggested otherwise.

Legal Advocacy Groups Weigh In: Efficiency vs. Equal Opportunity

School board advocacy groups weighed in on the Lartigue decision. An amicus brief filed by Thompson & Horton on behalf of the Texas Association of School Boards Legal Assistance Fund and the National School Attorneys Association argued that the prior precedent finding FAPE under IDEA to be a defense against ADA claims should be upheld. They contended that allowing students to essentially relitigate FAPE under the ADA was inefficient and unnecessary.

The Court, however, emphasized the distinct goals of the IDEA and ADA. In its conclusion, the 5th Circuit Court clarified that the ADA requires schools to:

  • Provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in school programs.
  • Ensure communication with students with disabilities is as effective as communication with non-disabled students.
  • Prioritize providing the accommodations and auxiliary aids requested by the individual student.

The Court acknowledged that in some cases, meeting these ADA requirements might necessitate going beyond simple compliance with the IDEA. This aligns with previous rulings from the Ninth Circuit Court1 and interpretations by the Department of Education.

Impact on Schools: Navigating the Evolving Legal Landscape

The Lartigue decision presents new challenges for schools. This ruling may lead to more complex litigation when students pursue FAPE claims under both the IDEA and ADA.

Here’s how schools can navigate this evolving legal landscape:

  • Maintain Focus on Student Needs: Continue to prioritize providing students with disabilities the necessary services, accommodations, and modifications. These should enable them to make appropriate progress and participate in regular education to the maximum extent possible.
  • Communication is Key: Pay close attention to communication accommodations and assistive technology. This includes considering the student’s preferred method and ensuring communication is as effective for them as it is for non-disabled students.

By following these guidelines, schools can demonstrate a commitment to meeting the needs of students with disabilities and potentially minimize future legal disputes.

  1. https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2013/08/07/11-56259%20web%20revised.pdf ↩︎

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