Wednesday, January 23, 2008

No exhaustion, no jurisdiction in "service dog" case

The Court of Appeals has made it clear over the years that families suing school districts under the Individuals With Disabilities In Education Act (IDEA) have to comply with administrative exhaustion requirements before proceeding in Court. This means that, before filing the lawsuit, you have to allow the state administrative process to unfold and allow state educational authorities to rule on the claims. This warning was re-emphasized on January 23, in Cave v. East Meadow School District.

In this case, the district afforded the hearing-impaired student special services consistent with his disability, including certain accommodations in the classroom. The district said no, however, when the student also wanted to bring his service dog into school. According to the Court of Appeals,

In December 2006, John, Jr.’s parents asked the high school authorities to allow him to bring his newly acquired service dog, Simba, to school with him every day. Despite the variety of accommodations supplied by the school for John, Jr.’s disability, his parents urged that Simba’s presence was necessary, as Simba would alert John, Jr. to emergency bells, to people calling his name, or to sounds of car engines in the street, and would generally enhance his socialization skills. More important, his parents claim that Simba is for John, Jr. an “independent life tool,” which, like his cochlear implants, is supposed to increase his independence and limit the effects of the hearing impairment.

The school officials denied the Caves’ request on the ground that the presence of the dog would prove disruptive to John, Jr.’s education, since his class schedule and his overall education program would have to be modified to avoid the exposure of allergic students and teachers to the dog.

When the district rejected this accommodation, the Cave family brought suit in Federal court under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the IDEA. Generally, unlike the IDEA, ADA claims against public institutions do not require the plaintiff to proceed in any administrative forum before filing the lawsuit. While the family argued that the ADA claim was distinct from the IDEA claim because the school was discriminating against John Jr. because of his disability, the Court of Appeals concluded that, since the relief sought in this case was available under the IDEA, the ADA and IDEA claims are essentially the same and that the courts have no jurisdiction over the claim because the Caves did not initially comply with the (technical and time-consuming) administrative process.

The Second Circuit observed about 10 years ago that there is no such thing as "interesting question jurisdiction." What this means is that, even the most profound lawsuits cannot be resolved in Federal court if the plaintiff has not complied with certain jurisdictional requirements. Since, in theory, the Cave family could have secured their relief through the state administrative process (thereby obviating any need to file suit in Federal court), the Court has no jurisdiction to resolve this case on the merits, no matter how interesting.

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