Carrie-Anne Smith, In her individual capacity; G.S., Next friend Carrie-Anne Smith Plaintiffs - Appellants
Rockwood R-VI School District; Eric Knost Defendants - Appellees
Submitted: April 11, 2018.
from United States District Court for the Eastern District of
Missouri - St. Louis.
SMITH, Chief Judge, WOLLMAN and LOKEN, Circuit Judges.
WOLLMAN, Circuit Judge.
Smith, acting in her individual capacity, and G.S., her son,
with Smith acting as next friend, appeal the district
court's dismissal of their complaint, which
alleged violations of the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (the
IDEA); the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794
et seq.; and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. We affirm.
was a student at Marquette High School (Marquette) located in
Chesterfield, Missouri, during the 2014-15 school year.
Although Marquette is in the Rockwood R-VI School District
(Rockwood), the Special School District of St. Louis County
(St. Louis District) administers G.S.'s Individualized
Education Plan (IEP), which addresses his medical and
educational needs. On September 30, 2014, the assistant
principal at Marquette suspended G.S. from school for ten
days. Shortly thereafter, Rockwood and the St. Louis District
held a manifestation hearing with G.S.'s IEP team as
required by the IDEA and concluded that G.S. was suspended
for conduct that manifested from his disability. Under the
IDEA, G.S. needed to be readmitted into school or have his
placement changed based on a modification of his behavior
intervention plan. Two days after the manifestation hearing,
however, Superintendent Eric Knost informed Smith by letter
that Rockwood was suspending G.S. for "an additional 180
days of out-of-school suspension."
learning in May 2015 that G.S.'s suspension should have
ended after the manifestation hearing, Smith and G.S. filed a
due process complaint with the Administrative Hearing
Commission against the St. Louis District. The parties
privately resolved the case, and Smith and G.S. voluntarily
dismissed the due process complaint.
thereafter filed suit in federal district court. The court
dismissed the complaint because plaintiffs had not properly
exhausted their administrative remedies under the IDEA. We
review the district court's ruling de novo.
J.M. v. Francis Howell Sch. Dist., 850 F.3d 944, 947
(8th Cir. 2017) (citing J.B. ex rel. Bailey v. Avilla
R-XIII Sch. Dist., 721 F.3d 588, 592 (8th Cir. 2013)).
purpose of the IDEA is "to ensure that all children with
disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public
education . . . designed to meet their unique needs and
prepare them for further education, employment, and
independent living[.]" 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A).
The statute requires state educational agencies to
"establish and maintain procedures . . . to ensure that
children with disabilities and their parents are guaranteed
procedural safeguards with respect to the provision of a free
appropriate public education[.]" 20 U.S.C. §
1415(a). Although the IDEA allows parents to bring disability
discrimination claims on behalf of their child, they must
first exhaust their administrative remedies if they are
"seeking relief that is also available under [the
IDEA]." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l). The Supreme
Court has explained that the exhaustion requirement applies
only if plaintiffs are seeking relief for the denial of a
free appropriate public education. Fry v. Napoleon Cmty.
Sch., 137 S.Ct. 743, 752 (2017). Exhaustion is not
required if plaintiffs are "seek[ing] relief for simple
discrimination[.]" Id. at 756. To determine
whether a complaint seeks redress for the denial of a public
education, the courts "look to the substance, or
gravamen, of the plaintiff's complaint."
Id. at 752.
argue that the Rehabilitation Act and § 1983 claims in
their district court complaint allege disability
discrimination, not the denial of a public education. We
disagree. The district court complaint states that "[a]s
a direct and proximate result of the long-term suspension,
G.S. was excluded from and deprived of educational
benefits" and that "G.S. was excluded from
participating in, and was denied the benefits of, the program
of education at [Marquette][.]" Although plaintiffs
allege "disability discrimination" in other
sections of the complaint, the gravamen of the complaint is
the denial of a public education.
characterization of the complaint is also consistent with the
procedural history of the case. The Supreme Court explained
in Fry that a "prior pursuit of the IDEA's
administrative remedies will often provide strong evidence
that the substance of a plaintiff's claim concerns the
denial of a [public education], even if the complaint never
explicitly uses that term." 137 S.Ct. at 757. Plaintiffs
acknowledge that the prior due process complaint filed with
the Administrative Hearing Commission alleged the denial of a
public education. See Appellant's Br. 16
("In the [due process complaint], G.S. and [the St.
Louis District] resolved the prospective issue of providing a
[public education] to G.S. going forward."). This
acknowledgment of the underlying purpose of the litigation
leads to the determination that the Rehabilitation Act and
§ 1983 claims concern the denial of a public education,
the ultimate relief for which required plaintiffs to exhaust
their administrative remedies. In light of plaintiffs'
failure to do so, the Rehabilitation Act and § 1983
claims must be dismissed.
complaint also alleges violations of the IDEA. Plaintiffs
argue that the exhaustion requirement does not apply to these
claims because plaintiffs sought money damages-a remedy not
authorized by the IDEA. Although the Supreme Court declined
to address this issue in Fry, our precedent is clear
"that 'the IDEA's exhaustion requirement remains
the general rule, regardless of whether the administrative
process offers the particular type of relief that is being
sought.'" J.M., 850 F.3d at 950 (quoting
J.B., 721 F.3d at 595). Plaintiffs argue in the
alternative that if exhaustion is required, an unenumerated
exception to the exhaustion requirement should apply because
plaintiffs seek relief unavailable under the IDEA, an
argument that we rejected in J.M. Id. at 950-51.
further argue that an exception should apply to the
exhaustion requirement because Rockwood was not a proper
party to the due process complaint and would have been
summarily dismissed from any administrative proceedings. In
support of this argument, plaintiffs cite Missouri Revised
Statute § 162.890, which states in relevant part that
"neither the state board of education nor any school
district within the special district shall be required to
establish schools or classes for the training or education of
handicapped or severely handicapped children under any other
existing law[.]" Plaintiffs do not explain why this
statute would prohibit Rockwood from participating in
administrative proceedings in light of its alleged denial of
a public education stemming from its expulsion decision. A
hearing held under either the IDEA or the due process
procedures outlined in Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565
(1975)-even if resulting in Rockwood's dismissal-would