Federal appellate court holds IDEA’s exhaustion requirement is not jurisdictional and only applies to claims for relief that are available under IDEA
Payne v. Peninsula Sch. Dist., No. 07-35115 (9th Cir. Jul. 29, 2011)
Abstract: In a split decision, the majority of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (CA, OR, WA, AZ, MT, ID, NV, AK, HI, GU, MP), sitting en banc (all active judges participating in consideration and decision of the case), has ruled that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA) exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement is not jurisdictional and, instead, is an affirmative defense that must raised by a school district or is waived.
The majority also ruled that IDEA’s exhaustion requirement only applies when the relief sought by a plaintiff is available under IDEA. It concluded that non-IDEA claims that are not seeking relief under IDEA are not subject to the exhaustion requirement. Therefore, the court held, “although the district court properly dismissed Payne’s IDEA-based § 1983 claim, it should not have dismissed her non-IDEA claims on exhaustion grounds.”
Facts/Issues: D.P., who suffers from oral motor apraxia and autism, attended Artondale Elementary School. In accordance with his individualized education plan (IEP), D.P. was placed in a contained special education classroom. The IEP also sought to address his behavioral issues through various intervention methods, including the use of time-out in a “safe room.” Use of the safe room as a disciplinary tool to modify D.P.’s behavior, along with access to the classroom, became subjects of contention for his parents. The parents repeatedly requested that the teacher not use what they termed “aversive therapy,” techniques, but she continued to use the time-out room. The parents requested mediation. Although the mediation agreement called for D.P.’s transfer to another school, it appears that there was no discussion of D.P.’s behavioral problems at the mediation. The mother was thereafter dissatisfied with the school district’s provision of services, but never sought an impartial due process hearing pursuant to IDEA. D.P. was subsequently withdrawn from school and is now home-schooled.
The mother filed suit in a federal district court against Peninsula School District (PSD), the teacher and other officials. She asserted a number of federal and state law claims based on the teacher’s use of the “safe room” and sought compensatory, special, and punitive damages, along with declaratory relief that PSD’s “safe room” policy is tortious and unconstitutional. The district court dismissed the suit on the grounds it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the federal claims because those claims were redressable under IDEA and the parents had failed to exhaust the administrative remedies available under that statute before bringing the suit.
A divided Ninth Circuit panel affirmed the district court, ruling that a parent seeking monetary damages for mental suffering and emotional distress of a special education student as a result of the student being isolated or secluded in a “safe room” to address behavioral issues was required to exhaust the administrative remedies available under IDEA before bringing a lawsuit. D.P.’s mother subsequently filed a motion with the Ninth Circuit requesting a rehearing en banc. In granting the motion, the Ninth Circuit vacated the panel’s previous decision.
Ruling/Rationale: The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part, and reversed in part the district court’s decision, and remanded the case to it for reconsideration of the non-IDEA claims. The majority first considered the question of whether IDEA’s exhaustion requirement is jurisdictional. Although the panel had treated it as such based on Ninth Circuit precedent, it questioned the soundness of that conclusion. The majority, based on number of U.S. Supreme Court “cases clarifying the difference between provisions limiting our subject matter jurisdiction, which cannot be waived and must be pled in the complaint, and ‘claims processing provisions,’ which must be pled as an affirmative defense or forfeited,” overruled Ninth Circuit precedent, and held the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement is a “claims processing provision” that IDEA defendants may raise as an affirmative defense.
The majority pointed out that IDEA’s exhaustion requirement provision was devoid of any language related to the jurisdiction of federal courts. Rather, the provision ”is written as a restriction on the rights of plaintiffs to bring suit, rather than as a limitation on the power of the federal courts to hear the suit.” The majority also pointed out that ”nothing in the relevant jurisdictional statutes requires exhaustion under the IDEA.” It noted that the provision in IDEA giving federal courts jurisdiction of IDEA claims contains no restriction on the subject matter jurisdiction of the federal courts.
Lastly, the majority concluded: “[T]he exhaustion requirement appears more flexible than a rigid jurisdictional limitation —questions about whether administrative proceedings would be futile, or whether dismissal of a suit would be consistent with the ’general purposes’ of exhaustion, are better addressed through a fact-specific assessment of the affirmative defense than through an inquiry about whether the court has the power to decide the case at all.”
Turning to the substantive issue of whether the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement applies only to claims for relief that are available under IDEA, the court held, “[n]on-IDEA claims that do not seek relief available under the IDEA are not subject to the exhaustion requirement, even if they allege injuries that could conceivably have been redressed by the IDEA.” The majority, therefore, overruled previous Ninth Circuit decisions “to the extent that they state otherwise and conclude[d] that, although the district court properly dismissed Payne’s IDEA-based § 1983 claim, it should not have dismissed her non-IDEA claims on exhaustion grounds.”
The majority agreed that a plaintiff can not evade IDEA exhaustion requirement simply by limiting his request for relief to money damages. “IDEA’s exhaustion requirement applies to claims only to the extent that the relief actually sought by the plaintiff could have been provided by the IDEA.” It concluded that ”when determining whether the IDEA requires a plaintiff to exhaust, courts should start by looking at a complaint’s prayer for relief and determine whether the relief sought is also available under the IDEA” and “[i]f it is not, then it is likely that [IDEA] does not require exhaustion in that case.”
The majority found itself in agreement the U.S. Department of Justice’s relief- centered approach that IDEA requires exhaustion in three situations: (1) when a plaintiff seeks an IDEA remedy or its functional equivalent; (2) where a plaintiff seeks prospective injunctive relief to alter an IEP or the educational placement of a disabled student; and (3) where a plaintiff is seeking to enforce rights that arise as a result of a denial of a free appropriate public education, whether pled as an IDEA claim or any other claim that relies on the denial of a FAPE to provide the basis for the cause of action.
In explaining the reasoning behind its ruling, the majority rejected the arguments made by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) in its amicus brief. Specifically, it pointed out ”IDEA does not restrict or limit the rights, procedures, and remedies available under § 1983, the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, or other federal laws.” Similarly, unlike the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) [which had been construed by the Supreme Court as requiring exhaustion and interpreted in Ninth Circuit precedent as applying to IDEA], the majority noted, “the IDEA requires exhaustion only from plaintiffs who are pursuing non-IDEA claims that compel the same forms of relief as the IDEA.”
The majority also rejected NSBA’s contention that relaxing the exhaustion requirement was counter to Congress’s goal of expediting the resolution of these disputes by encouraging collaborative efforts between the parties. “Even where the parties ultimately file suit in federal court after exhausting their administrative remedies,” it noted, “we may benefit from a process that has developed the factual record and narrowed the issues contested by the parties.”
The majority also stressed that ”the NSBA’s reading would actually place disabled students in a disadvantaged position relative to students without special needs” because a non-disabled student ”would be able to challenge the constitutionality of his teacher’s confinement procedures without first resorting to administrative procedures” while his disabled counterpart would be required to wade through the administrative process first.
In regard to the dissent’s approach, the majority found it “would effectively refashion [the exhaustion requirement] from a provision designed to facilitate the coexistence of the IDEA with other forms of relief into one designed to preempt all cases involving the mistreatment of disabled students by a school.” It stated: “We do not think that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement was intended to penalize disabled students for their disability and … we think it is not what Congress intended.”
Applying its new standard to the case at hand, the majority instructed the district to allow the parent to amend her complaint to delineate specific claims. The defendants will have the opportunity, through an unenumerated motion to dismiss, to seek dismissal of some or all of Payne’s claims on the ground that they require administrative exhaustion. When deciding that motion, the district court “may decide disputed issues of fact to the extent they are necessary to deciding whether her claims require exhaustion and, if so, whether she has adequately exhausted available administrative remedies.”
Payne v. Peninsula Sch. Dist., No. 07-35115 (9th Cir. Jul. 29, 2011)
[The en banc decision also featured a concurring opinion and an opinion that concurred in part and dissented in part. The concurring opinion expressed concern that under the “relief-centered” approach adopted by the majority, "it is not always possible to determine whether the alleged damages are separate and distinct from those covered by the IDEA." It contended that the best solution to this shortcoming would not be to dismiss "an ambiguous complaint or cause of action for failure to exhaust," but to allow a defendant school district to assert, at a point even as late as trial, that an aspect of plaintiff’s claim of damages would have been addressed in the administrative proceedings.
The concurrence continued: "Then, to the extent that the defendant meets its burden of demonstrating that the administrative processes would have addressed an aspect of the alleged damages, plaintiff would be denied any recovery for that aspect because that portion of his claim is unexhausted."
The concurrence in part and dissent in part stated that the majority opinion clashes with the clear language of the IDEA, which requires administrative exhaustion “before the filing of a civil action, . . . seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA].” The majority’s ruling, it asserted, is inconsistent with the core purposes of IDEA’s exhaustion requirement, which is to allow state and local agencies “the exercise of discretion and education expertise,” giving agencies “the first opportunity to correct shortcomings in their educational programs for disabled children,” and allowing “full exploration of technical educational issues.” Finally, the opinion noted, “the newly-restricted exhaustion requirement will allow plaintiffs—through gamesmanship and cleverly-crafted pleadings—to subject school districts to civil liability for money damages, without first giving school districts the opportunity to remedy the plaintiff’s injuries under the IDEA.”
In October 2010, Legal Clips reported that NSBA had filed its amicus brief in Payne v. Peninsula Sch. Dist. The brief, which was written by attorneys Lenore Silverman and Maggy M. Athanasious of Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP of Oakland, California, made two arguments. First, it argued that the exhaustion of administrative remedies requirement embedded in IDEA should be strictly enforced. Second, it argued that the use of restraints and/or seclusion is a behavior modification tool inextricably intertwined with a student’s educational program as documented in his IEP; therefore, an alleged imperfect implementation of a behavior intervention contained in an IEP must first be addressed in a due process hearing “with the input and expertise of educators and special education service providers.”]