Riley et al v. School Administrative Unit #23 et al
///ORDER dismissing plaintiffs' claims against the defendant SAU #23 as set forth therein. The Clerk of Court shall close the case. So Ordered by Judge Steven J. McAuliffe.(jbw) Modified on 10/13/2017 to add defendant's name.(jbw).
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
Jamie Riley and Alan Riley,
on behalf of their son,
Case No. 15-cv-152-SM
Opinion No. 2017 DNH 219
School Administrative Unit #23,
O R D E R
Plaintiffs, A.R., and Jamie Riley and Alan Riley, on behalf
of their son, A.R., filed suit on April 29, 2015, asserting
violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act
(“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., and Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794 (“Section 504”) by defendant
School Administrative Unit #23 (the “District”).1
A.R. is a student at Woodsville Elementary School who has
been diagnosed with developmental delays, hypotonia, hearing
loss, dysphagia, epilepsy, and cortical blindness.
A.R., who is
non-verbal, suffers from frequent seizures of multiple types
Plaintiffs also brought suit against Dr. Donald A.
LaPlante, the District’s Interim Superintendent, but have since
voluntarily dismissed all claims against him. See Document No.
(drop, grand mal, temporal lobe).
Those seizures impact A.R’s
independent mobility, and he requires significant support to be
safe, to be mobile within his classroom and on the school
campus, to care for his personal needs, and to communicate those
needs to others.
A.R. receives special education and related services from
the District pursuant to his individualized education plan
Those services include instruction from a special
education teacher, a teacher of the deaf, and a teacher of the
visually impaired, as well as related services of speech,
physical therapy and occupational therapy.
Since June of 2012,
A.R. has also been accompanied by a one-on-one aide who,
currently, is a registered nurse.
The aide’s responsibilities
include: wiping his mouth to prevent skin irritation, feeding
A.R., treating A.R.’s multiple seizures (by monitoring his
breathing, placing him a safe location during seizures, and
checking for ill effects resulting from the seizures), assisting
A.R. with walking from place to place, and, on some days,
providing instructional support.
A.R. has a service dog named Carina.
Carina was trained by
4 Paws for Ability (“4 Paws”) as a multipurpose service animal.
Carina alerts for seizures by licking A.R.’s face.
is trained to go through the school day without needing to be
walked, eat or relieve herself, she requires a service animal
handler during the school day.
Because of A.R.’s cognitive,
sensory and physical limitations, he is not in a position to act
in that capacity.
After some initial resistance, the District
allows Carina to accompany A.R. at school.
District requires that A.R.’s parents provide and pay for a
handler to supervise Carina during the school day.
contend that, by refusing to provide and pay for a service dog
handler for Carina while A.R. is at school, the District has
failed to reasonably accommodate A.R.’s disability.
Upon filing suit, plaintiffs moved for a preliminary
The Magistrate Judge held a hearing on that motion
on November 12, 2016, and issued her Report and Recommendation
on December 22, 2016, (document no. 39), recommending that
plaintiffs’ motion be denied.
Neither party objected to the
Magistrate Judge’s recommendation, and, on January 13, 2016, the
court approved that Report and Recommendation, denying
plaintiffs’ motion for injunctive relief.
The IDEA: Background
In opposing plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary relief, the
District argued, in part, that plaintiffs were unlikely to
succeed on the merits because they were required, but failed, to
first exhaust their administrative remedies under the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et
As our Supreme Court has explained, the IDEA:
ensures that children with disabilities receive needed
special education services. One of its provisions,
§ 1415(l), addresses the Act's relationship with other
laws protecting those children. Section 1415(l) makes
clear that nothing in the IDEA “restrict[s] or
limit[s] the rights [or] remedies” that other federal
laws, including antidiscrimination statutes, confer on
children with disabilities. At the same time, the
section states that if a suit brought under such a law
“seek[s] relief that is also available under” the
IDEA, the plaintiff must first exhaust the IDEA's
Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., ___ U.S. ___, 137 S. Ct. 743, 748,
The IDEA “offers federal funds to States in exchange for a
commitment: to furnish a ‘free appropriate public education’ –
more concisely known as a FAPE – to all children with certain
physical or intellectual disabilities.”
Id. at 748 (citing 20
U.S.C. §§ 1412(a)(1)(A) and 1414(3)(A)(i)).
“[A] FAPE comprises
‘special education and related services’ – both ‘instruction’
tailored to meet a child’s ‘unique needs’ and sufficient
‘supportive services’ to permit the child to benefit from that
Id. at 748-49 (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1401(9), (26),
(29) (additional citations omitted).
The scope of “related services” under the IDEA is fairly
As the Supreme Court observed, “related services,” as
defined by the IDEA, “broadly encompass those supportive
services that ‘may be required to assist a child with a
disability to benefit from special education.’”
Community Sch. Dist. v. Garret F. by Charlene F., 526 U.S. 66,
“A service that enables a handicapped child to
remain at school during the day is an important means of
providing the child with the meaningful access to education that
Irving Independent School Dist. v. Tatro,
468 U.S. 883, 891 (1984).
“Services . . . that permit a child
to remain at school during the day are no less related to the
effort to educate than are services that enable the child to
reach, enter or exit the school.”
An “individualized education program, called an IEP for
short, serves as the ‘primary vehicle’ for providing each child
with the promised FAPE.”
Fry, 137 S. Ct. at 749 (quoting Honig
v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311 (1988)).
In addition to documenting
“the child’s current ‘levels of academic achievement,’” and
specifying “measurable annual goals,” the IEP also “lists the
‘special education and related services’ to be provided so that”
the child may “advance appropriately toward [those] goals.”
(quoting 20 U.S.C. §§ 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(I), (II), (IV)(aa)).
The IDEA “establishes formal procedures for resolving
disputes” between parents and school representatives when they
“cannot agree on such issues,” and requires exhaustion of those
procedures before seeking judicial review.
asserting claims arising “under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act,
or other similar laws, must in certain circumstances” exhaust
the IDEA’s administrative procedures prior to filing.
Our court of appeals has “recognized that exhaustion is
mandatory in such cases, even though a party might seek relief
that ‘is not available in the administrative venue.’
exhaustion in such cases is both consistent with the legislative
intent of the IDEA and practical because it ‘facilitate[s] the
development of a useful record.’”
S.S. by S.Y. v. City of
Springfield, Mass., 146 F. Supp. 3d 414, 418 (D. Mass. 2015)
(quoting Frazier v. Fairhaven Sch. Comm., 276 F.3d 52, 62 (1st
However, before the Supreme Court’s February,
2017, opinion in Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Sch., the full scope of
the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement was unsettled.
See Fry, 137
S. Ct. at 752 (explaining that the Court granted certiorari “to
address confusion in the courts of appeals as to the scope of
§ 1415(l)'s exhaustion requirement.”).
Fry v. Napoleon
In Fry, a Michigan elementary school refused to allow E.F.,
a student with a severe form of cerebral palsy, to bring her
service dog, Wonder, to school.
Fry, 137 S. Ct. at 750.
Frys filed suit under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the
The school district moved to dismiss,
arguing that the Frys were required to first exhaust the IDEA’s
administrative remedies procedures.
Id. at 752.
Circuit agreed, finding that, “[b]ecause the harms to E.F. were
generally ‘educational’ — most notably, the court reasoned,
because ‘Wonder's absence hurt her sense of independence and
social confidence at school’ — the Frys had to exhaust the
Id. (quoting Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Schs.,
788 F.3d 622, 627 (6th Cir. 2015)).
In making that
determination, the Sixth Circuit took the view that the IDEA’s
exhaustion requirements apply “whenever ‘the genesis and
manifestations’ of the complained-of harms were ‘educational’ in
Id. (quoting Fry, 788 F.3d at 627).
In this case, the District relied primarily upon the Sixth
Circuit’s opinion in Fry, arguing that the IDEA’s administrative
remedies must be exhausted before A.R.’s suit could be filed.
In her report and recommendation, the Magistrate Judge carefully
considered the Sixth Circuit’s opinion, but found it
She noted that, in Fry, the primary reason
Wonder was in school was to develop and maintain a “bond” with
E.F., which, the Sixth Circuit found was an educational goal.
See Document No. 39, at 19.
Here, the Magistrate Judge
determined, the evidence demonstrated that Carina, A.R.’s
service dog, was not related to A.R.’s educational goals.
Instead, Carina was a “health and safety service used by A.R. to
identify and alert for seizures.”
Id. at 18.
And, she noted,
the defendants seemingly agreed, as “defendants’ counsel
acknowledged that if Carina does not come to school, A.R. is not
denied any program activity or service offered by the district.”
Accordingly, the magistrate concluded, the IDEA’s
exhaustion requirement did not apply, as plaintiffs were not
contending that A.R.’s IEP was inadequate or that he was
receiving a substandard education.
See id. at 17.
On February 22, 2017, the Supreme Court vacated the Sixth
Circuit’s decision in Fry, and clarified the scope of the IDEA’s
137 S. Ct. at 752.
The Court held that
“exhaustion is not necessary when the gravamen of the
plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the
IDEA’s core guarantee – what the Act calls a ‘free appropriate
Id. at 748.
However, “[i]f a lawsuit
charges such a denial, the plaintiff cannot escape § 1451(l)
merely by bringing her suit under a statute other than the
Id. at 754.
The Court further held that, “in determining whether a suit
indeed ‘seeks’ relief for such a denial [of a FAPE], a court
should look to the substance, or gravamen, of the plaintiff’s
Id. at 752.
The Court stated:
In addressing whether a complaint fits that
description, a court should attend to the diverse
means and ends of the statutes covering persons with
disabilities — the IDEA on the one hand, the ADA and
Rehabilitation Act (most notably) on the other. The
IDEA, of course, protects only “children” (well,
really, adolescents too) and concerns only their
schooling. § 1412(a)(1)(A). And as earlier noted,
the statute's goal is to provide each child with
meaningful access to education by offering
individualized instruction and related services
appropriate to her “unique needs.” § 1401(29); see
Rowley, 458 U.S., at 192, 198; supra, at 753 – 754.
By contrast, Title II of the ADA and § 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act cover people with disabilities of
all ages, and do so both inside and outside schools.
And those statutes aim to root out disability-based
discrimination, enabling each covered person
(sometimes by means of reasonable accommodations) to
participate equally to all others in public facilities
and federally funded programs. See supra, at 749 –
750. In short, the IDEA guarantees individually
tailored educational services, while Title II and
§ 504 promise non-discriminatory access to public
institutions. That is not to deny some overlap in
coverage: The same conduct might violate all three
statutes — which is why . . . a plaintiff might seek
relief for the denial of a FAPE under Title II and
§ 504 as well as the IDEA. But still, the statutory
differences just discussed mean that a complaint
brought under Title II and § 504 might instead seek
relief for simple discrimination, irrespective of the
IDEA's FAPE obligation.
One clue to whether the gravamen of a complaint
against a school concerns the denial of a FAPE, or
instead addresses disability-based discrimination, can
come from asking a pair of hypothetical questions.
First, could the plaintiff have brought essentially
the same claim if the alleged conduct had occurred at
a public facility that was not a school — say, a
public theater or library? And second, could an adult
at the school — say, an employee or visitor — have
pressed essentially the same grievance? When the
answer to those questions is yes, a complaint that
does not expressly allege the denial of a FAPE is also
unlikely to be truly about that subject; after all, in
those other situations there is no FAPE obligation and
yet the same basic suit could go forward. But when
the answer is no, then the complaint probably does
concern a FAPE, even if it does not explicitly say so;
for the FAPE requirement is all that explains why only
a child in the school setting (not an adult in that
setting or a child in some other) has a viable claim.
Id. at 755–56.
The Court continued: “[a] further sign that the
gravamen of a suit is the denial of a FAPE can emerge from the
history of the proceedings.
In particular, a court may consider
that a plaintiff has previously invoked the IDEA's formal
procedures to handle the dispute — thus starting to exhaust the
Act's remedies before switching midstream.”
Id. at 757.
The Court determined that the Sixth Circuit had erred by
asking whether E.F.’s injuries were, broadly speaking,
“educational” in nature, rather than “asking whether the
gravamen of E.F.’s complaint charges, and seeks relief for, the
denial of a FAPE.”
Id. at 758.
And, because “[u]nderstood
correctly, § 1415(l) might not require exhaustion of the Frys’
claim,” the court remanded the case to the court below.
Given the intervening Supreme Court precedent since the
Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendation was issued, this
court issued an order on March 10, 2017, asking that plaintiffs
show cause why the case should not be stayed pending exhaustion
of IDEA’s remedies, or dismissed for failure to exhaust those
At that time, the court denied
defendants’ pending summary judgment motion without prejudice,
pending consideration of the IDEA administrative remedies issue.
Both parties filed legal memoranda in response.
Plaintiffs argue that the relief they are seeking
(provision of a service dog handler by the District) is not
available to them under the IDEA, because that relief is not
necessary to A.R.’s obtaining an appropriate education.
say that the requested accommodation relates only to medical
issues, not A.R.’s educational needs.
The District argues that
while plaintiffs would not be entitled to the requested relief
on the merits under the IDEA, still, the gravamen of plaintiffs’
complaint is whether the District must provide supportive
services necessary for Carina to attend school with A.R. – a
request unique to the relationship between a disabled student
and a school, and one that falls within the reach of the IDEA.
That is, such relief “could” be obtained under the IDEA if
necessary in a specific case.
Therefore, defendants say,
plaintiffs were required to first exhaust their IDEA
administrative remedies before bringing suit.
This case is somewhat unique in that both parties agree,
for different reasons, that plaintiffs cannot obtain the
requested relief under the IDEA, because A.R. is not suffering
Neither party argues that Carina is
educationally necessary for A.R., and both parties agree that
Carina does not assist A.R. in achieving any of the educational
goals described in his IEP.
And, plaintiffs are not alleging
that A.R. is, in any way, being denied the benefit of a free and
appropriate public education.
In fact, as the magistrate judge
noted, during the preliminary injunction hearing, A.R.’s mother
testified that she was satisfied with the education that A.R.
See Document No. 47-1, at 111:23-112:1.
However, the parties’ agreement with respect to the IDEA issue
is not dispositive: If the gravamen of plaintiffs’ complaint
implicates A.R.’s rights to a free and appropriate public
education, then plaintiffs are required to exhaust their IDEA
Distinguishing this case from most of those relied on by
plaintiffs, is the fact that the District readily accommodates
A.R.’s need for a service animal.
Several courts have
determined that claims involving a school district’s refusal to
allow a service dog to accompany a student to school do not
implicate the IDEA and its administrative scheme.
Sullivan v. Vallejo City Unified Sch. Dist., 731 F. Supp. 947,
951 (E.D. Cal. 1990).
Here, however, plaintiffs are not
complaining that the District is discriminating against A.R. on
the basis of his disability by refusing him access when
accompanied by his service dog.
Instead, the crux of
plaintiffs’ complaint is that the District discriminates against
A.R. by refusing to pay for and provide a handler for Carina.
So, plaintiffs are not merely asking that the District allow
A.R. to be accompanied by his service dog while he is at school.
Instead, plaintiffs want the District to hire, train and pay for
a handler for Carina.
Plaintiffs argue that the gravamen of their complaint
actually addresses an entirely unrelated issue:
failure to comply with a settlement agreement the parties
reached in earlier proceedings before the Office of Civil Rights
of the U.S. Department of Education.
See Pls.’ Br. at 8.
that argument is not supported by the filed complaint, which
contains only one passing reference to the settlement agreement,
no discussion of its terms, or the parties’ respective
obligations under it, no specifics concerning how the District
failed to comply with the agreement, and no claims for relief
for its breach.
There surely is a venue and a means by which
claims of right arising under an agreement or administrative
consent decree can be resolved, but this lawsuit does not
provide either given the complaint as filed.
In their complaint, plaintiffs allege that, through
Carina’s alerts, “A.R. can be directed to a safe location and
decrease the chance that an injury will result,” that Carina
provides “psychological benefit” to A.R. as a constant presence
in his life, and that Carina’s presence at school is necessary
to maintain her bond with A.R.
Compl. ¶¶ 11, 16-17.
allege that A.R. is being denied “equal access” to school
because the school will not provide him with the necessary
handler for Carina.
With respect to A.R.’s IEP, plaintiffs allege in their
complaint that the District refused to include Carina in A.R.’s
See compl. ¶¶ 18, 20.
At the preliminary injunction
hearing, Ms. Riley testified that, at some point, she had asked
to add Carina and a handler to A.R.’s IEP, but was told “no.”
See Document No. 47-1 at 112.
On March 6, 2012, plaintiffs sent
a letter to the District indicating that they were not:
currently going to pursue adding Carina to [A.R.’s]
IEP. However, if you plan to address a change in
[A.R.’s] aide managing Carina in the school settling
then I wish to proceed under the ADA.
Preliminary Inj. Hearing, Pls. Exh. 5.
Finally, A.R.’s current
IEP notes that his parents will provide him with certain items
and supplies while he attends school, including a seizure alert
dog and an adult handler for the service dog.
See Document No.
So, while plaintiffs insist that they are not taking issue
with the adequacy of A.R.’s education or his IEP, the complaint
discloses that plaintiffs are dissatisfied with the level of
services (or support) the District is providing to A.R.
the court noted that the complaint “allege[d] only disabilitybased discrimination, without making any reference to the
adequacy of the special education services [plaintiff’s] school
137 S. Ct. at 758.
Here, in contrast, plaintiffs do
allege that the level of supportive services provided by the
District is inadequate, because the District refuses to provide
a handler to issue verbal commands to Carina, hold Carina’s
leash while she is with A.R., and employ Carina in accordance
with A.R.’s seizure protocol.
Given the hypothetical questions identified by the Court in
Fry, one must ask: (1) Could plaintiffs bring the same claim if
the alleged conduct occurred at a public institution other than
a school?; and (2) Could an adult at the school have pressed
essentially the same grievance?
Fry, 137 S. Ct. at 756.
answer to both questions is no.
Plaintiffs could not state a
cognizable claim for relief under the ADA or Rehabilitation Act
against, for example, a public library based on the library’s
failure to provide a handler for Carina while A.R. was visiting
Nor could an adult state a cognizable claim
against a school based on that school’s refusal to provide a
handler for the adult’s service animal while visiting the
That is in part because, under the ADA, “[a] public
entity is not responsible for the care or supervision of a
28 C.F.R. § 35.136(e); Cf., U.S. v. Gates-
Chili Central Sch. Dist., 198 F. Supp. 3d 228, 234 (W.D.N.Y.
2016) (finding that school district had no obligation under the
ADA or its regulations to “provide handling services” for a
student’s service dog).
Of course, Fry’s hypothetical questions were not meant to
be taken as bright line tests.
But the answers here suggest
that the rights claimed by plaintiffs are unique to a student’s
effort to obtain an appropriate public education.
parties’ past relationship plainly suggests that plaintiffs are,
in actuality, seeking relief related to A.R.’s educational
entitlements, notwithstanding their denials in unison.
March 6, 2012, letter, A.R.’s mother stated that, rather than
initiating IDEA administrative proceedings to add Carina to
A.R.’s IEP, the family would instead be proceeding under the
While the record is unclear as to whether plaintiffs at
any point did attempt to invoke the IDEA’s formal procedures
with respect to Carina’s services, the March 6, 2012, letter
lends some support to a finding that the gravamen of plaintiffs’
suit concerns the denial of a FAPE.
Finally, plaintiffs seem to argue that exhaustion of their
IDEA remedies would have been futile.
They contend that, even
if they were to seek relief through the IDEA’s administrative
remedies, the hearing officer would have no authority to order
that relief because A.R.’s FAPE is not affected by the purported
discrimination at issue.
Plaintiffs’ expectations about what a
hearing officer might determine with respect to whether
providing A.R. with a handler for Carina is necessary for a FAPE
are of course not dispositive.
A hearing officer might
determine that providing a handler for Carina falls within
“related services” that the District is required to provide to
A.R. under the IDEA.
As the magistrate judge fully explained in her order on
their motion for preliminary relief, plaintiffs are not entitled
to the relief they seek under either the ADA or the
See Document No. 39 at 21-30; 32-37; see
also Alboniga v. Sch. Bd. of Broward Cty. Fla., 87 F. Supp. 3d
1319, 1341 (S.D. Fla. 2015) (“Turning to the specific regulatory
provisions at issue, 28 C.F.R. § 35.136(d) provides that ‘[a]
service animal shall be under the control of its handler.’ By
implication, requiring a public entity to act as handler for and
to control the service animal would not be a reasonable
accommodation mandated by the ADA.”) (citations omitted); U.S.
v. Gates-Chili Central Sch. Dist., 198 F. Supp. 3d at 234.
the extent the relief sought by plaintiffs might be available at
all, it is only available under the IDEA.
plaintiffs’ claims fall within the reach of the IDEA, and Fry
requires that they be dismissed for failure to first exhaust
available administrative remedies.
For the foregoing reasons, as well as those set forth in
defendants’ briefing (document no. 55), plaintiffs’ claims
against the defendants are dismissed, albeit without prejudice.
The Clerk of Court shall close the case.
Steven J. McAuliffe
United States District Judge
October 12, 2017
Kirk C. Simoneau, Esq.
David P. Slawsky, Esq.
Melissa A. Hewey, Esq.
Dona Feeney, Esq.
Jeanne M. Kincaid, Esq.
Joshua S. Hilliard, Esq.
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