The federal courts will defer to the expertise of state officials in certain areas, like education, which means plaintiffs must exhaust state remedies before seeking federal relief. This is particularly true when plaintiffs sue over the rights of disabled schoolchildren. This case summarizes the lay of the land.
The case is Stropkay v. Garden City Union Free School District, a summary order issued on December 3. Under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), disabled students get an IEP, or an Individualized Educational Plan that the school and the parents create to accommodate the student's learning and other disabilities. Normally, a dissatisfied family challenges the bad IEP at an administrative hearing and, if they lose at the hearing, appeal to the State Educational Department. If that fails, the parents can then sue in federal court. Courts will allow families to proceed straight to federal court without exhausting state administrative procedures in rare circumstances, like when they are challenging systemic problems with the process that the administrative process cannot remedy, or when exhausting state remedies would be futile.
Some of the claims in this case are not appropriate for federal court. The parents raise "grievances related to the education of disabled children," so they must exhaust state remedies, even if they are suing under other civil rights statutes, and not the IDEA. Since plaintiffs did not do that, the question is whether their claims are suitable for federal court. One is, the others are not.
One claim alleges that the school retaliated against plaintiffs for invoking their rights under the disability laws. Since that claim raises a matter "related to the education of disabled children," the parents had to go through the state system first. Another claim also fails because, while plaintiffs said there were systemic violations relating to the need for specific student services, "alleging some students were denied services is not sufficient to allege systemic violations and thus does not exempt plaintiffs from the need to exhaust administrative remedies."
But another claim survives the exhaustion requirement. Plaintiffs say the district did not comply with the student's IEP requirements. Normally, if the parents don't like the IEP created by the district, they have to exhaust all state remedies. Not when the IEP is in place and the school fails to honor its terms. Under Second Circuit authority, plaintiffs can proceed straight to federal court. A fine line, to be sure.