Litigating Against Schools: State Administrative Remedies

When you feel your school has mistreated you – whether you're a student, parent, or employee – you likely wish to resolve the situation as quickly as possible while achieving the best possible outcome in your case. In some instances, this may mean taking legal action and suing your school – but before you sue, you likely have a legal obligation to pursue other avenues of resolution first. This includes exhausting what are known as administrative remedies.

An administrative remedy is a non-judicial solution provided by an organization that must be attempted before a court will consider your case. The doctrine of exhaustion of remedies ensures you cannot seek a remedy in court until you have used all available non-judicial options to resolve your case first. In short, you are obligated to work with your school to achieve a mutually acceptable outcome before taking the matter to court.

What Must You Prove to Sue a School?

Any type of school can be sued for a variety of reasons including discrimination, sexual harassment, child abuse, personal injuries, employment violations, unfair expulsion or suspension, special education, and stolen property. This includes public schools, private schools, elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and universities. In most cases, you must work with a school district or board to attempt to resolve any complaints before you can sue. This process often begins by filing an administrative complaint.

Additionally, you'll need to prove the allegations in your complaint are true. This includes gathering statements from witnesses, accessing security footage, and documenting any damages you may have suffered. After the district or institution has reviewed and investigated your case, they will likely offer you some sort of remedy. If you are not satisfied with their actions and all administrative options have been exhausted, at that point, you may move forward with suing the school.

Before filing any kind of formal complaint against a school, you'll want to consult an attorney. Knowing the exact process for suing a school can be complicated and overwhelming, and without appropriate legal knowledge your case could be thrown out of court altogether. Additionally, an attorney will be able to conduct appropriate and timely research, help you meet all administrative requirements, and know how best to move forward with your case to achieve the best possible outcome.

What Do Administrative Remedies Mean For Your Case?

When pursuing a complaint against a school, exhausting your administrative remedies plays a significant role in determining whether a judge will hear your case or send you away. Often if you haven't attempted to “work it out” with the school first, your case may be dismissed entirely, which can ruin your chances of obtaining any relief for your initial dispute with your school. The doctrine of exhaustion of administrative remedies says that a person challenging an agency decision must first pursue the agency's available remedies before seeking judicial review. It was created to promote an efficient justice system and autonomous administrative state.

There are, however, occasional exceptions to this rule. In the case of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, a student sued when the school prevented her service dog from attending class with her. The school attempted to have the case dismissed because the student did not attempt to exhaust all administrative remedies under the IDEA, but the court ruled that because the student did not claim the school failed to provide a free appropriate public education, she could sue the school directly without exhausting administrative remedies under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This decision could impact how students with disabilities pursue complaints against their schools and possibly increase the number of cases brought against public schools.

In general, exhaustion may not be required when the use of administrative remedies would prove futile, when the claim arises from policy or practice of general applicability that is contrary to law, or when it is unlikely that appropriate relief can be obtained through administrative remedies. To understand whether exhaustion of administrative remedies apply to your case, consider consulting an experienced attorney. The nuances of these requirements can be extremely complex, and without legal training and expertise it can be difficult to know whether you've done what is necessary to achieve the best outcome for your case – or to avoid having your case dismissed.

What Should Parents Know About Administrative Remedies?

Especially when you're seeking justice on behalf of your child, it is essential to be well informed on how administrative remedies work and what you should expect. In general, specific timelines exist for when administrative remedies must be exhausted. If the school fails to meet the requirements set forth by this timeline, it may be possible for you to pursue legal action against the school without exhausting your non-judicial options first.

While navigating this process, you'll want to keep detailed records of any interactions you or your child has with the school's employees or representatives regarding your complaint, as well as any attempts they have made to work with you to resolve your case in court. Make note of the date, time, and nature of each conversation, with particular attention to when and how you and school representatives follow up with each other.

When considering administrative remedies, various options exist, including:

  • Arbitration: This process aims to resolve a dispute by allowing each party to present their case to an arbitrator, or resolution practitioner, who will determine the outcome. The process is private and can be kept confidential if both parties agree.
  • Settlement conferences: This is a type of meeting presided over by a judge or magistrate in an attempt to settle a case before it goes to a hearing or trial.
  • Mediation: This is a structured process where an impartial third party helps resolve a conflict by utilizing communication and negotiation techniques.
  • Complaint filings: This typically involves filling out a specific form or following a process as determined by a school district or board. Filing a complaint allows you to give a detailed account of your version of events as a first step in conflict resolution.
  • Due process hearings: A due process hearing is basically a courtroom with just you and the school's representatives present. During the hearing, you can call witnesses, present evidence, and make arguments, and an impartial officer will act as a judge and make the final decision in your case.

The type of administrative remedy you and the school pursue will likely depend on the nature of your complaint, as well as other factors. If you are unhappy with the type of administrative remedy the school is offering, you might benefit from consulting with an experienced attorney. Your lawyer can help you understand whether your case can legally go to court after administrative remedies have been exhausted – or whether exhausting administrative remedies may be unnecessary in the first place.

What Are Obstacles to Administrative Remedies?

As with any type of conflict resolution, challenges exist when pursuing administrative remedies. One obstacle you may face is dealing with school board or staff members that have a negative attitude, outlook, or opinion toward you, your family, or your case. This can make reaching an agreement more difficult and can make processes like mediation, due process hearings, settlement conferences, and arbitration much more contentious than they need to be. Different attitudes and public opinions toward certain complaints may also influence the outcome and treatment you receive.

Additionally, you may feel non-judicial remedies are not serving your family's needs, and you may wish to move forward with legal action as soon as possible. When you or a loved one has been wronged or treated unfairly, it is normal to want compensation for your suffering. However, to reach your desired outcome, it is essential to follow all processes and procedures as dictated by the law to avoid having your case thrown out of court. Consulting with an attorney can help you meet all administrative requirements and get the justice and compensation you deserve.

Examples of Cases Involving Administrative Remedies

In a recent case in Connecticut, a superior court judge recently heard arguments on an emergency motion to stop state education officials from enforcing a mask mandate to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The motion aimed to prevent local boards of education from enacting mask mandates similar to the one in effect in the state of Connecticut. According to the mandate, the state did not have the authority to create the mandate and it violated students' constitutional rights by imposing it. Lawyers for the state are saying the case should be dismissed, citing the fact that the plaintiffs did not exhaust all administrative remedies before they sued the education department.

In a recent California case, an 18-year-old special-education student with autism was placed in an out-of-state residential facility when he began exhibiting violent and threatening behavior. The school district failed to provide appropriate educational placement for him. After returning home, the student filed for due process against the department of education, stating that the residential facility denied him a free appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The case eventually escalated to federal court, where the student sought monetary damages and complained that he needed an in-state residential placement to receive an adequate education. His case was also dismissed because he failed to exhaust administrative remedies before pursuing legal action.

Many reasons to sue a school exist, including human rights violations or discrimination, sexual harassment, child abuse, personal injuries, employment violations, unfair expulsion or suspension, special education, and stolen property. The definitions of these complaints can often be murky, and it is essential to follow the proper procedures and file an appropriate administrative complaint. Your attorney can help you check every box to help you and your family get justice.

How Can a Lawyer Help?

When suing a school, taking the time to talk with a lawyer who specializes in your type of grievance will be invaluable. They will be able to use the benefit of years of expertise to help you decide whether you have an adequate case. If you don't have enough of a case for a formal suit, your legal advisor may be able to help direct you toward another way to preserve and protect your rights. If, on the other hand, you do have enough evidence for a case, your legal advisor can help you work from the very beginning to craft a case that is compelling and likely to win.

Remember that your school likely has a very robust team of legal experts working to protect them at all times. Even if you have legal experience yourself, that's a lot to be going up against. Your first step needs to be finding an advisor or attorney who has specific experience litigating against schools—successfully.

Suing a school is definitely not an action you should pursue on your own. Finding an experienced lawyer who knows how to successfully litigate against schools is a crucial part of your strategy. Fortunately, Joseph D. Lento is able to help.

The Lento Law Firm has a deep understanding of the many issues students and others in academia face. If you or your student faces a specific concern or if you feel your family has experienced unfair treatment, Joseph D. Lento is ready to help you pursue justice. For years, he's helped students and families work towards a successful outcome to find relief in all jurisdictions across the United States. Contact our office today at 888-535-3686 to schedule a consultation.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact our offices today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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