Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools: Finding a Middle Ground

20 Pages Posted: 16 Nov 2017 Last revised: 12 Dec 2017

See all articles by Robert A. Garda

Robert A. Garda

Loyola University of New Orleans College of Law

Date Written: November 1, 2017


The Supreme Court clarified and liberalized students with disabilities access to courts in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools. It held that parties bringing claims under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”) do not need to exhaust the administrative procedures of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (“IDEA”) before filing suit unless the gravamen, or substance, of the suit seeks redress for the denial of a free appropriate public education. While this is a significant victory for students with disabilities, the Court did not liberalize access to courts or school liability as much as it could have. Instead, it found a middle ground for both court access and the obligations schools owe students with disabilities. The decision is significant on two fronts. First, it opens the courtroom door to students asserting ADA and Section 504 claims by excusing them from having to wind their way through the often time-consuming and onerous administrative due process procedures of the IDEA. The prevailing view among the circuits prior to Fry made it very difficult, if not near impossible, for many 504 and ADA claims to proceed directly to court if they were asserted by a child eligible under the IDEA. This is a significant victory for students and parents that need immediate and efficient relief from disability discrimination. But the Court’s measured approach – requiring a determination of the gravamen of plaintiff’s complaint rather than just accepting the relief sought by the plaintiff at face value – does not throw the courtroom doors wide open. Part I of this essay explains the Fry decision, the new exhaustion requirement, the critical issues it left undecided, and its impact going forward. The second and equally important impact of the Fry decision is the heightened recognition of the Court of the differences between the protections afforded by the ADA and Section 504 on the one hand, and the IDEA on the other. The interplay of these three independent but overlapping statutes has confounded courts, including the Supreme Court, for years. It is well understood that the IDEA contains affirmative obligations for states to provide a limited class of eligible students with disabilities a “free appropriate public education.” It is equally understood that the ADA and Section 504 protect a broader class of students with disabilities against discrimination, by requiring schools to provide such students with reasonable accommodations. What has been unclear is whether schools automatically meet their non-discrimination obligations to a student under Section 504 and the ADA when they provide a FAPE to that student under the IDEA. The Supreme Court definitively answered this question in the negative, but did not go as far as it could have to expand liability for schools. It recognized that Section 504 and the ADA impose independent accommodation obligations beyond the provision of FAPE, but also implied that the overlapping FAPE requirements of the statutes are identical. Part II of this essay explains how the Fry decision advances the understanding of how these statutes overlap, and how they don’t, and firmly establishes that compliance with the affirmative obligations of the IDEA does not necessarily mean compliance with the non-discrimination provisions of Section 504 and the ADA.

Keywords: exhaust, administrative remedies, ADA, Section 504, IDEA, disability

JEL Classification: K19, K30, K39, K49

Suggested Citation

Garda, Robert A., Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools: Finding a Middle Ground (November 1, 2017). 46 J. Law & Educ. 459 (2017), Loyola University New Orleans College of Law Research Paper No. 2017-16, Available at SSRN: or

Robert A. Garda (Contact Author)

Loyola University of New Orleans College of Law ( email )

7214 St. Charles Ave.
Campus Box 901
New Orleans, LA 70118
United States

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