The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously that a deaf student may pursue his lawsuit for money damages against a Michigan school district that allegedly failed for years to provide him with adequate sign language assistance.
The court held in Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools that a procedural requirement under the main federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, does not bar the student’s claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
The decision will allow the now-27-year-old student, Miguel Luna Perez, to pursue damages under the ADA. And it will make it easier for other students with disabilities and their families to bypass often slow-moving administrative proceedings under the IDEA when their chief claim is for damages under other federal laws such as the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The key question in the case was whether students and parents must “exhaust” all administrative proceedings under the IDEA before they may sue under a different federal law such as the ADA when the remedy at issue, such as money damages, is not available under the IDEA.
Writing for the court, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch suggested both sides offered a plausible view on the issue, but “we believe Mr. Perez’s better comports with the statute’s terms.”
“The statute’s administrative exhaustion requirement applies only to suits that ‘seek relief … also available under’ IDEA,” Gorsuch said, referring to a central but confusing provision Congress added to the IDEA. “And that condition simply is not met in situations like ours, where a plaintiff brings a suit under another federal law for compensatory damages—a form of relief everyone agrees IDEA does not provide.”
Gorsuch delivered a short summary of his opinion from the bench, a tradition the court restored only recently after three years of simply posting its decisions online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The opinion is eight pages and came two months after the case was argued in January.
Gorsuch said the court did not decide two other issues advanced in briefs and arguments. One of those, argued by Luna Perez’s lawyers, was that the IDEA’s administrative exhaustion requirement is susceptible to a “futility exception,” meaning the requirement categorically would not apply when exhaustion would be futile, as in Luna Perez’s case. The other, raised by lawyers for the school district, was that money damages are not even available under the ADA, so Luna Perez will ultimately not get the unspecified money damages he is seeking.
“But today, we have no occasion to address any of those things,” Gorsuch said. “In proceedings below, the courts held that [the IDEA’s exhaustion provision] precluded Mr. Perez’s ADA lawsuit. We clarify that nothing in that provision bars his way.”
Brian Wolfman, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and the director of an appellate clinic that had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Luna Perez, said the decision was “a very good outcome for kids.”
“If someone is seeking monetary relief in statutes other than the IDEA, the decision today says you can go straight to court,” he said. “Parents and students don’t have to get caught up in this IDEA exhaustion process, where they can get deterred.”
Pursuing ADA suit after a settlement of IDEA claims
Roman Martinez, the Washington lawyer who argued the case for Luna Perez, said in a written statement that “the court’s ruling vindicates the rights of students with disabilities to obtain full relief when they suffer discrimination. Miguel and his family look forward to pursuing their legal claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Art Ebert, the superintendent of Sturgis Public Schools, said in an interview that because he had joined the district after it had settled with Luna Perez’s over the student’s IDEA claims in 2018, he could not comment on the details or outcome of the case.
“Having said that, I can share that I believe that every experience provides us with an opportunity to learn and grow,” Ebert said. “Through this, too, we will gain knowledge, insight, and understanding that will help us maximize every student’s true potential.”
Ebert said it was too early to say whether the district would continue to vigorously defend itself against Luna Perez’s ADA suit.
Gorsuch provided a short but poignant factual backdrop of the case involving Luna Perez, who immigrated from Mexico with his parents and attended Sturgis public schools from age 9 to 20.
“Because Mr. Perez is deaf, Sturgis provided him with aides to translate classroom instruction into sign language,” Gorsuch wrote. “For years, Mr. Perez and his parents allege, Sturgis assigned aides who were either unqualified (including one who attempted to teach herself sign language) or absent from the classroom for hours on end.”
“Along the way,” Gorsuch continued, “Sturgis allegedly misrepresented Mr. Perez’s educational progress too, awarding him inflated grades and advancing him from grade to grade regardless of his progress. Based on Sturgis’s misrepresentations, Mr. Perez and his parents say, they believed he was on track to graduate from high school with his class. But then, months before graduation, Sturgis revealed that it would not award him a diploma.”
Although the school district and Luna Perez reached a settlement of his IDEA claim, the 3,000-student district has not conceded that it had failed to provide him a “free appropriate public education,” or FAPE, under the special education law.
Luna Perez attended the Michigan School for the Deaf for several years at the school district’s expense, finally graduating with a high school diploma in 2020. He attended the oral arguments with the help of teams of Certified Hearing Interpreters using American Sign Language and Certified Deaf Interpreters.
In a statement he released through his lawyers in January, Luna Perez said he had learned construction skills at the Michigan School for the Deaf and was interested in home building as a job. He was pursuing his legal case to ensure that other deaf students are provided adequate assistance in schools.
“I want to win, and hope that others like me get interpreters,” he said.