Judge Toby Heytens, nominated by President Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, wrote a unanimous decision that reversed a Trump district court judge and ruled that a parent suing a school district for disability discrimination against their child need not first go through and exhaust possible state administrative remedies. The May 2023 decision was in Z.W. v Horry County School Dist.
What is this Case About and What Happened in the Lower Court?
Elementary school student Z.W. was diagnosed with several disabilities, including autism spectrum and language disorders. A psychologist “recommended Z.W. receive Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy” from a certified behavior therapist, who would accompany him at school and other settings throughout the day. The child’s parents had insurance that would cover the cost.
When Z.W.’s parents asked the Horry County school board to allow the student to be accompanied by an ABA therapist, however, the school district said no, three times over four years. A fourth request was met with no response. Z.W.’s father then filed suit in federal court, contending that the district was discriminating against his son in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act by “refusing to accommodate” the request to have an ABA therapist accompany Z.W. at school, at no cost to the district. He asked for an injunction ordering the district to accommodate Z.W.
Trump district judge Joseph Dawson dismissed the case for failure to exhaust state administrative remedies under a different law: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under the IDEA, students with disabilities are entitled to receive a free appropriate public education, and Z.W.’s parents could have requested that the district provide and pay for ABA therapy for their son. But they simply requested that the district allow an insurance-paid therapist to accompany Z.W. at school, They never asked for a remedy under the IDEA, and never mentioned the law in their complaint. They appealed the case to the Fourth Circuit.
How did Judge Heytens and the Fourth Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?
In his unanimous opinion, Judge Heytens reversed the lower court. He ruled that parents claiming discrimination under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, not seeking relief under the IDEA, cannot be compelled to exhaust what can be time-consuming state and local administrative remedies before filing suit.
As Heytens explained, a 1984 Supreme Court decision had suggested that exhaustion was required under these circumstances, but Congress amended the law to make clear that it is not. As the Court recognized in 2017, Heytens continued, the ADA, IDEA, and the Rehabilitation Act are “separate vehicles” for seeking remedies for students with disabilities, and exhaustion is required only if a lawsuit “seeks relief for the denial” of a free appropriate public education under the IDEA. That was clearly not true here, the opinion went on, since Z.W.’s parents were not asking for the school district to provide and pay for ABA therapy, but instead to cease its discriminatory denial of access to his privately-funded ABA therapist. The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court so that Z.W.’s parents can pursue their claims.
In addition to the significance of this decision to Z.W., Heytens’ ruling is very important to other children with disabilities seeking relief from discrimination in violation of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, especially in the Fourth Circuit (West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Maryland). Making clear that these children and their families need not exhaust time-consuming administrative remedies unless they seek state-funded IDEA relief will likely help significantly in resolving their claims. In addition, the ruling provides another illustration of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Heytens to our federal courts.