Thursday, November 03, 2011

Good IDEA Exhaustion Case

On Monday, the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued an opinion in P.V. ex rel. Valentin v. School District of Philadelphia, 2011 WL 5127850 (E.D. Pa., Oct. 31, 2011).  The case was brought, on behalf of a class, by four students with autism in the Philadelphia public schools.  They seek to challenge, under the IDEA, ADA, and Rehabilitation Act, and under state law, what they allege is a policy of forcing kids with autism to change schools once they complete a particular grade, even if other kids who complete that grade don't have to change schools.  The school district moved to strike the class allegations and moved to dismiss for failure to exhaust, mootness, and lack of standing.

The district court denied the school district's motion in full.  What is especially interesting from a disability law perspective is the court's analysis of the IDEA exhaustion argument.  The court concluded that exhaustion of IDEA administrative remedies was not required because the plaintiffs alleged a systemic violation and sought system-wide relief.  It explained that if a plaintiff alleges such a violation and seeks such relief, resort to administrative remedies would be futile, because the IDEA administrative process can resolve individual claims only.  The court took note of cases holding that exhaustion is nonetheless required if the administrative process can provide some form of relief to the plaintiff.  But it determined that those cases made sense only as a response to efforts by plaintiffs to gerrymander their relief requests to avoid the administrative process:
However, taken too far, the “some form of relief” doctrine would eviscerate the futility exception to exhaustion. Administrative hearing officers can almost always fashion some kind of relief for an IDEA claimant. Therefore, if we made IDEA claimants exhaust their administrative remedies every time the administrative process could provide the claimants some relief, the futility exception would become a nullity. Additionally, the Supreme Court has made it clear that IDEA claimants “may bypass the administrative process where exhaustion would be futile or inadequate.” [citing Honig v. Doe] (emphasis added). If read broadly, as suggested by Defendants, the “some form of relief” line of cases would improperly run afoul of the Honig decision.
The standard for excusing exhaustion in IDEA cases has caused significant divisions within the courts.  This is an issue the Supreme Court will deal with before too much longer, I predict.



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