McAndrews Law Offices Wins Significant Federal Court Victories on
Issue of “Exhaustion” of Administrative Remedies
In cases where a child with a disability has been injured due to the actions of a school district, McAndrews Law Offices has been successful in bringing suit under federal statutes, such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. These statutes protect disabled students from either being discriminated against, or deprived of the benefits of their educational program, due to their disabilities. Where a connection can be established between a student’s disability, a school district’s actions, and an injury to the student, a viable lawsuit can be brought in federal court.
In such cases, school districts often seek to have the lawsuit dismissed for an alleged failure by the injured child to “exhaust” his or her “administrative remedies.” Under this theory, a disabled child who has been injured by a school district’s actions may not proceed straight to federal court – instead, the child and his family must first go through an administrative special education due process proceeding before bringing a lawsuit in federal court. However, for many years, federal courts in the Third Circuit (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) have permitted lawsuits to proceed without going through a due process hearing in cases where the student is seeking only money damages for injuries, which is not an available remedy in a special education due process proceeding.
A recent case in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Batchelor v. Rose Tree Media School Dist., considerably broadened the exhaustion requirement. The court in Batchelor ruled that, where a disabled child seeks money damages for an injury caused by a school district, the child must first go through a due process hearing if he or she could theoretically obtain some relief through such a hearing (such as compensatory education), even if the student does not seek such relief in the federal lawsuit. The court ruled that a student may not avoid exhaustion, as before, by asking only for money damages, and no other relief. However, in two recent cases since Batchelor was decided, McAndrews Law Offices has successfully defeated arguments by school districts that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the disabled child did not go through a due process hearing before filing suit in federal court.
In Akil Abasi F. v. Pressley Ridge School for the Deaf, McAndrews Law Offices represented a disabled child who was sexually assaulted on a van by an older student on the way to school. McAndrews Law Offices filed a federal lawsuit seeking money damages for the emotional trauma and other injuries the child suffered due to the assault. One of the defendants, the student’s school district (which arranged the students’ transportation on the van), argued that the case should be dismissed because the child did not first file a due process proceeding against the school district before suing in federal court. The federal district court, despite the recent Batchelor decision, agreed with McAndrews’ Law Offices’ argument that there the child was not required to exhaust his administrative remedies where the child’s injuries were non-educational in nature, i.e., emotional harm caused by a sexual molestation on a school bus.
Following the Akil Abasi F. decision, McAndrews Law Offices also defeated a motion to dismiss in M.C. v. Perkiomen Valley School District. That case also involved a student with a disability who was sexually assaulted on a school bus, this time by a similar-age peer. The court, like the court in Akil Abasi F., rejected the school district’s argument that the federal lawsuit should be dismissed because the student did not first go through a due process proceeding. The court noted that, unlike Batchelor, the student’s injuries (including trauma and emotional distress) were non-educational in nature and she could not have obtained any meaningful relief for those injuries through a due process proceeding. The court also noted that it would be unfair to require a disabled student to go through a due process hearing before filing in federal court, where a non-disabled student in a similar situation would not be required to do so. The court specifically relied on the earlier decision in Akil Abasi F. in finding that even the broadly-worded Batchelor decision did not require exhaustion of administrative remedies under the facts of the case.
Both these cases are significant in that they provide a basis for disabled students, in instances where the students’ injuries are non-educational in nature, and no meaningful educational remedies would be available through a due process proceeding, to file lawsuits for damages in federal court without the need to first go through a due process hearing.