Where a party fails to follow a state’s administrative exhaustion requirements prior to filing suit under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, that failure can be excused because the exhaustion requirement is a claim-processing rule. Although this court held in a 2002 decision that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement was jurisdictional, that court’s reasoning is inconsistent with more recent Supreme Court authority.
K.I. was diagnosed with a variety of learning and psycho-social disorders. Dissatisfied with her school’s response to her request for special education services, K.I. and her mother J.I. asked for and received a hearing under North Carolina’s administrative procedures. Because they disagreed with the hearing decision, K.I. and J.I. tried to appeal it administratively. But their appeal was not considered because they did not follow North Carolina’s rules for filing appeals.
Later, K.I. and J.I. sued in federal court under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. The district court found that their failure to properly appeal under North Carolina’s administrative rules meant that they had not exhausted their administrative remedies.
At the time of this appeal, to challenge a school’s failure to evaluate a child or provide a FAPE, a parent in North Carolina had to petition the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings to obtain a due process hearing before an administrative law judge, or ALJ. Then a parent could appeal the ALJ’s decision to a review officer appointed by the State Board from a pool of approved officers. A party unhappy with the review officer’s decision could then “institute a civil action in State court within 30 days after receipt of the notice of the decision or in federal court as provided in 20 U.S.C. § 1415.”
K.I. and J.I. contend that by electronically filing their notice of appeal with North Carolina’s Office of Administrative Hearings with a copy to the state’s designee Ms. King, they satisfied the statute’s procedural requirements. The district court disagreed. It concluded that the state’s review officer correctly decided that the statute required notice of appeals to be filed in writing — not electronically — within 30 days of receipt of the ALJ’s decision. The court then reasoned that because K.I. and J.I. did not do this, they failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. This court sees no error in the district court’s decision.
K.I. and J.I. next argue that, even if they failed to exhaust, the district court erred in holding that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement is jurisdictional in nature. Instead, they insist it is a claims-processing rule.
The district court properly recognized that, in MM ex rel. DM v. School District of Greenville County, 303 F.3d 523 (4th Cir. 2002), this court treated the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement as jurisdictional. Although the Supreme Court has not directly overruled MM, that court’s reasoning is inconsistent with more recent Supreme Court authority. Accordingly, the court declines to follow it here. Instead, it holds the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement is not a jurisdictional requirement but a claims-processing rule.
K.I. and J.I. insist that the courts may fashion equitable remedies for violations of claims-processing rules. K.I. and J.I. point out that while they may not have filed their appeal in writing to Ms. King, they filed it on time to the Office of Administrative Hearings and Ms. King received it. Under those circumstances, they argue it would be inequitable to strictly enforce the requirements of North Carolina law. The problem with K.I. and J.I.’s argument, however, is that they have not raised any equitable arguments that apply here.
K.I. and J.I. also argue that their filings to North Carolina’s Office of Administrative Hearings constitute the “functional equivalent” of North Carolina’s filing requirements. But the authority K.I. and J.I. cite does not convince the court that the functional equivalent doctrine applies here.
The district court concluded that K.I. and J.I.’s claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, and the Rehabilitation Act involved the denial of a FAPE. Accordingly, the district court held that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirements applied to those claims as well. The court agrees on both counts.
K.I. v. Durham Public Schools Board of Education, Case No. 20-1834, Dec. 5, 2022. 4th Cir. (Quattlebaum), from MDNC at Greensboro (Biggs). Stacey Marlise Gahagan for Appellants. Stephen Grayson Rawson and Tiffany Y. Lucas for Appellees. VLW 022-2-257. 24 pp.