Court Rules Schools Must Meet Stricter Standards Under ADA than IDEA

The IDEA and the ADA are related, but they are not the same.

The beginning premise is simple enough:  When a disabled student requests help under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)(20 USC §1412) in order to obtain a “free appropriate public education,” commonly known as a FAPE in education law lingo, school districts must develop an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”) to bridge the gap. 

But if a school district meets its obligations under the IDEA, does it also meet its duties under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)(42 USC §12101, et seq.) which requires the the disabled have "equal access" to public facilities and services?

That very issue came before the Ninth Circuit in K.M. v. Tustin Unified School District. The court, in a precedent setting ruling, held that the IDEA and ADA are related, may be invoked in the same case, but serve slightly different purposes.  To quote the court: “[T]he IDEA and Title II differ in both ends and means. Substantively, the IDEA sets only a floor of access to education for children with communications disabilities, but requires school districts to provide the individualized services necessary to get a child to that floor, regardless of the costs, administrative burdens, or program alterations required. Title II [of the ADA] and its implementing regulations, taken together, require public entities to take steps towards making existing services not just accessible, but equally accessible to people with communication disabilities, but only insofar as doing so does not pose an undue burden or require a fundamental alteration of their programs.”

The Ninth Circuit also made it clear that there is no “unified theory” to determine how these statues will interact in any given case.  “The question whether a school meets the ADA’s requirements for accommodating deaf or hard-of-hearing students as long as it provides a FAPE for such students in accord with the IDEA is therefore one that cannot be answered through any general principles concerning the overall relationship between the two statutes. Instead, we must address the question by comparing the particular provisions of the ADA and the IDEA covering students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, as well as the implementing regulations for those provisions. If the ADA requirements are sufficiently different from, and in some relevant respect more stringent than, those imposed by the IDEA, then compliance with the IDEA FAPE requirement would not preclude an ADA claim.”

The court went on to say:  “Given [the] differences between the two statutes, we are unable to articulate any unified theory for how they will interact in  particular cases. Precisely because we are unable to do so, we must reject the argument that the success or failure of a student’s IDEA claim dictates, as a matter of law, the success or failure of her Title II claim. As a result, courts evaluating claims under the IDEA and Title II must analyze each claim separately under the relevant statutory and regulatory framework. We note, however, that nothing in our holding should be understood to bar district courts from applying ordinary principles of issue and claim preclusion in cases raising both IDEA and Title II claims where the IDEA administrative appeals process has functionally adjudicated some or all questions relevant to a Title II claim in a way that precludes relitigation.”

The K.M. case involved hearing impaired students who contended they were entitled to “communication access realtime translation” (CART) in order to keep up with instruction.  The school district claimed that it could comply with the IDEA by providing different services. When the student’s parents then proceeded to a full blown administrative hearing, following by proceedings in federal court -- seeking to compel the school to supply CART -- the administrative law judge and the trial judge both concluded that because the District had complied with the IDEA, there could be no claim under the ADA.

But the Ninth Circuit reversed, noting that the IDEA provides for minimum standards (and not “potential maximizing” educational opportunities), while the ADA requires full and equal access to educational services.  It is the ADA's equal access component that may exceed the minimum IDEA standard.

The case was remanded to the trial court so the parties and the judge could determine wither the District’s proposed IEP services met the stricter ADA standard. 

A copy of the Ninth Circuit's ruling is attached for your convenience.

Our firm regularly advises school administrators, teachers, parents and schools themselves on a variety of legal issues and if you have questions about this ruling, or any other aspect of public or private school administration, please feel free to consult our office.

PDF icon KM v. Tustin USD (IDEA & ADA).pdf147.26 KB