November 21, 2019, Trial News | The American Association For Justice

November 21, 2019, Trial News

TrialNews logo

Student with disabilities need not exhaust IDEA remedies before bringing Title IX claims for sexual assault

Maureen Leddy

photo of children in a classroom

The Fifth Circuit has held that a student with disabilities who was sexually assaulted by a classmate after her school failed to respond to her complaints of sexual harassment does not have to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act before bringing claims under Title IX when that student requests relief that is different from or in addition to the right to a “free appropriate public education” guaranteed under the IDEA.
 

The Fifth Circuit has held that a student with disabilities who was sexually assaulted by a classmate after her school failed to respond to her complaints of sexual harassment does not have to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) before bringing claims under Title IX when that student requests relief that is different from or in addition to the right to a “free appropriate public education” guaranteed under the IDEA. (Doe v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist., 2019 WL 5485114 (5th Cir. Oct. 25, 2019).)

T.W., who has cerebral palsy and static encephalopathy, attended a special education program at a high school in the Dallas Independent School District. In 2013, T.W. took a functional life skills class along with an older male student with disabilities, V.A. Early in the school year, V.A. began grabbing T.W. inappropriately. After she complained several times, the school agreed to relocate V.A.’s seat in the classroom. However, V.A.’s new seat was adjacent to the bathroom that all students in the class were required to use, and V.A. continued to touch T.W. inappropriately as she passed his seat. T.W. reported the continued abuse but was eventually forced into the restroom by V.A., where he sexually assaulted her.        

T.W.’s mother, Jane Doe, sued the school district in Texas federal district court, asserting that the defendant failed to protect T.W. from the assault and violated her rights to educational opportunities and benefits under Title IX. Doe also brought claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging the school failed to protect T.W. and violated her right to bodily integrity. Suit also alleged state law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. The school district moved to dismiss, arguing that all the claims were barred because Doe had not exhausted her administrative remedies under the IDEA or, alternatively, had failed to state claims for relief. The district court granted the defendant's motion.

To exhaust administrative remedies, Doe filed a complaint seeking a hearing with a special education officer, asserting IDEA claims and non-IDEA claims, including claims under Title IX. The administrative hearing officer found that Doe’s IDEA claims were time-barred and dismissed her Title IX claims for lack of jurisdiction. Doe then filed suit in Texas federal district court again in 2017, reasserting her Title IX claims.

In its second look at Doe’s Title IX claims, the district court evaluated whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools impacted the claims. (137 S. Ct. 743 (2017).) In Fry, the parents of a child with disabilities alleged a school district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by prohibiting the child from bringing her service dog to school. The Court held that for claims under statutes other than the IDEA, where the remedy sought is not a “free appropriate public education,” exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative remedies is not required. The Court also found that to determine the relief sought by a plaintiff, courts must look to the “gravamen of the plaintiff's complaint.”

Interpreting Fry, the district court held that in Doe’s case, “an adult could not have brought the same grievance because Doe’s claim is based on ‘student-on-student sexual harassment’” and therefore Doe’s claim involves a “deprivation of access to school resources,” as provided for under the IDEA. The district court dismissed Doe’s claim, adding that because Doe sought a remedy under the IDEA (as well as Title IX), and her IDEA claims were time-barred rather than exhausted, these IDEA unexhausted claims preclude her from pursuing her Title IX claims.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit disagreed with the district court’s application of Fry, reviving Doe’s claims. It held that her lawsuit is about sex discrimination, and a student without disabilities could have made the same claim that the school was indifferent to the sexual abuse, so exhaustion of remedies under the IDEA is not required “Were all traces of T.W.’s disabilities removed, Doe’s claim would look nearly identical to what exists now,” the court said.

“It is our hope that the court’s decision will ensure that in the future, students with disabilities will not be treated differently than nondisabled students in their pursuit of Title IX claims of sexual harassment and abuse,” said Doe’s attorneys, Lori Watson and Hal Browne, of Plano, Texas. “Ninety-nine percent of Doe’s complaint was about sexual assault, not the denial of a free appropriate public education,” the attorneys said. They hope other circuits will take note of this application of Fry.