Ninth Circuit Court clarifies impact of settlement of due process complaints, access to courts
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, parents and school districts can request a due process hearing to challenge whether a student has been provided a Free Appropriate Public Education through his or her Individualized Education Program.

The Office of Administrative Hearings, and the Administrative Law Judges employed by OAH preside over these hearings in California. School districts, county offices of education and parents are encouraged to resolve their disputes through mediation, which is voluntary. If a resolution cannot be reached, or the parties refuse to participate in mediation, the parties may request a due process hearing before the OAH. OAH decisions can be appealed to state and federal courts in California. Importantly, plaintiffs must exhaust these administrative remedies under IDEA before bringing an appeal or lawsuit in court.

The process does not always go this neatly, though. Parents have at times resolved their dispute through mediation with the district, and then subsequently brought additional claims in court alleging the school district violated related laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

In Paul G. v. Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, the Ninth Circuit recently clarified that the settlement of an IDEA claim before the OAH prior to a final administrative decision does not satisfy the requirement that plaintiffs must exhaust their administrative remedies before bringing a lawsuit in federal court. In other words, after parents and the school district settle a special education due process case and thereby fail to submit the matter to an ALJ’s decision, the parents cannot later bring a lawsuit under Section 504 or the ADA if those claims also challenge whether the school is providing an appropriate education to the student.

The plaintiff in the case is an adult student with autism. Paul was enrolled as a special education student in Monterey Peninsula USD, and during his junior year of high school he began having episodes of violent behavior. The district held an IEP meeting and offered to place Paul in a residential facility. However, because Paul was 18 years old by this point, no residential facility in California would accept him. Paul’s family enrolled him in a residential facility in Kansas, but Paul became homesick and returned to California.

Paul’s counsel initiated IDEA administrative proceedings seeking a due process hearing with the OAH, and sought residential placement in California and monetary damages, among other claims. Paul then entered into a settlement agreement with the district, and OAH subsequently dismissed the case without ruling on Paul’s claim that the lack of residential facility in California had denied him a FAPE. Paul’s counsel then filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging violations of the ADA and Section 504, and appealed to the Ninth Circuit after the district court dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.

The Ninth Circuit grappled with whether Paul was required to exhaust the IDEA’s administrative remedies in this case, and whether an exception to the exhaustion requirement applied. Paul argued that because his claims were brought under the ADA and Section 504, not IDEA, he did not need to exhaust administrative remedies. The court found that because Paul was seeking relief that was fundamentally educational — access to a particular kind of school as required by his IEP — then even though the case was brought under the ADA and Section 504, and not IDEA, Paul was still required to exhaust administrative remedies because the relief sought was available under IDEA.

This case clarifies for districts and parents the scope of claims settled in a due process hearing before the OAH. It provides clarity on existing law, and while it provides greater certainty for districts in due process hearings, districts should be aware that this case also may influence parents’ willingness to settle IDEA cases.

Please note that the information provided here by CSBA is for informational purposes and is not legal advice. Please contact your legal counsel for questions related to this information.