Special Education

A Deaf Student Says His School District Failed Him. The Supreme Court Will Decide

By Mark Walsh — January 17, 2023 10 min read
Miguel Perez
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When the U.S. Supreme Court takes up his special education and disability discrimination case on Wednesday, Miguel Luna Perez will in the courtroom. Perez, now 27, is deaf, and he will be aided in trying to understand the complex legal arguments by both a certified deaf interpreter and an American Sign Language translator.

“My case at the U.S. Supreme Court is hard for me to understand,” Luna Perez said in a statement released by his lawyers. “Part of it is about having no interpreter at Sturgis [Public Schools]. Part of it is that some judges said I can’t tell my story in court.”

The young deaf immigrant’s statement hints at a personal narrative of dashed dreams allegedly caused largely by the failures of a Michigan school district to ensure that he was being provided the educational assistance he needed to learn to communicate.

“I want to tell my story in court,” Luna Perez said. “I wish I could have gone to college. I don’t have a job, but I want to have one.”

Learning about a ‘certificate of completion’ instead of a diploma

In 2004, when he was 9 years old, Luna Perez moved with his parents and some of his eight siblings from Mexico to Sturgis, Mich. He had not had any formal education in Mexico. He enrolled in the local school district in Sturgis, but he faced enormous challenges: He was deaf. He did not know any form of sign language and could not read lips. He could not speak any words in Spanish or English. And he could not read or write.

Still, to Luna Perez’s parents, who speak only Spanish and thus had their own challenges communicating with the district, it seemed like the Sturgis school system had their youngest child’s interests at heart. Perez received an individualized education plan, or IEP, under the main federal special education law. The IEP called for him to have an educational aide use sign language to relay his lessons to him. His teachers described him as a curious student who willingly used the signs taught to him.

In 2016, however, his parents—Jose Luna and Maria Perez—learned from school officials that their son was not in line to graduate with a high school diploma but instead with a “certificate of completion.” This was surprising to them because Perez had made the honor roll for four years and had received mostly As and Bs on his report cards. And they would be further disappointed to learn, according to papers in the family’s lawsuit, that the educational aide assigned to their son did not adequately know any form of sign language.

In 2017, the family filed a due-process complaint with the state of Michigan under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The district settled the complaint in 2018 without any admission that it had failed to provide Luna Perez with a “free appropriate public education” under the law. The district agreed to pay for him to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf, which the young man attended for four years but still has significant difficulty communicating.

Luna Perez also sued the Sturgis district under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, seeking unspecified money damages for the emotional distress and economic harms allegedly caused by its years of failures to provide him with an adequate education. Two lower federal courts dismissed the ADA suit, ruling that Luna Perez was barred from suing for money damages because he never completed, or “exhausted,” the IDEA administrative process, which can involve months or even years of hearings and exchanges of paperwork to develop an evidentiary record.

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People gather as the Supreme Court begins its new term and to hear the first arguments, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Oct. 3, 2022. Monday's session is also the first time new Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court's first Black female justice, will participate. And it's the first time the public will be able to attend since the court closed in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
People gather for the first day of the U.S. Supreme Court's new term Oct. 3, the first time the public was able to attend since the court closed in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

In Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools (Case No. 21-887), the Supreme Court is taking up two thorny legal questions arising out of the ADA case. The first is whether students and parents must exhaust all procedures under the IDEA before they may sue under a different federal law such as the ADA which allows for monetary damages (which the IDEA does not). The second issue is whether courts may conclude that it would simply be futile to require going through all administrative proceedings in cases such as Luna Perez’s, where the school district offered to settle his IDEA complaint.

The school district has argued that, under the IDEA, Luna Perez was required to exhaust those procedures. That meant he should have rejected the very settlement they offered, the district has said. The district won in two lower courts, which ruled that Congress has inserted a provision in the IDEA which requires families to complete the administrative procedure process for their educational claims under the special education law before suing under other federal laws such as the ADA.

“That turns the IDEA upside down,” Roman Martinez, a Washington lawyer who will argue Luna Perez’s case before the justices, said in an interview. “The statute clearly wants to get kids like Miguel educational relief as quickly as possible. That means that when the school district offers you everything you want under the statute, you should be allowed to say yes, without giving up other claims under other statutes.”

The school district, in high court, focuses on legal arguments

The 3,000-student Sturgis district declined through its lawyers to discuss the case. In filings with the Supreme Court, the district argues that it is centrally important that Luna Perez was seeking a free appropriate public education under the IDEA, and the fact that he settled that claim “makes futility an irrelevant concept.”

“Congress had good reason to require exhaustion no matter the remedy, because it prioritizes children’s educational needs and allows experts to develop a record facilitating judicial review,” the district argues in its high court brief.

In a lower-court filing, the district had argued that Luna Perez was making “fantastic and exaggerated claims” that it had denied him accommodations under federal law. But in its Supreme Court brief, the district focuses on its legal arguments much more than the facts as they are alleged in Luna Perez’s suit.

“This case highlights the risks associated with allowing plaintiffs to circumvent the administrative process,” the district argues, adding that Luna Perez’s arguments “would raise difficult questions, like whether the requested damages [under the ADA] overlap with IDEA relief and whether they are even available under the other law.”

The district has major education groups in its corner. The National School Boards Association and its Michigan affiliate, in a friend-of-the-court brief, argue that the IDEA’s requirement that the administrative process be exhausted before claims may be brought in court encourages collaboration between families of special education students and districts.

AASA, the School Superintendents Association, in a friend-of-the-court brief joined by five other education groups, called the facts of Luna Perez’s case “sympathetic,” but then sought to direct the high court’s attention to a separate case where parents sued a school district under the ADA and another federal law even though they had years earlier unilaterally pulled their child from the district and enrolled him in private school.

“Allowing the IDEA’s exhaustion requirements to be avoided simply by requesting monetary damages in a non-IDEA lawsuit would significantly weaken the collaborative benefits of the IDEA,” the superintendents’ group’s brief says.

A lost opportunity to attend college

Such unilateral placements in private schools potentially at public expense are a major issue for districts under the IDEA. But Luna Perez’s parents never pulled him from the Sturgis district. Instead, according to the lawsuit, they tried to comprehend the complexities of the IEP process under the federal special education law, sometimes with the aid of an English-language interpreter and sometimes not.

A local educational expert recommended that the district provide Luna Perez with an ASL interpreter. But instead, the district provided him with an educational aide who did not know ASL and had tried to use a book to teach herself Signed English, which uses ASL signs but English grammar instead of ASL’s own syntax. But the aide was using that method incorrectly, the suit says, which resulted in Luna Perez and the aide being able to communicate with each other, but left the student without a way to communicate with others who knew Signed English.

In the fall of 2016, when Luna Perez began attending the Michigan School for the Deaf in Flint, a licensed psychologist specializing in working with deaf and hard of hearing individuals evaluated him and concluded that he had “very limited language, mostly relying on a collection of atypical and incorrect signs that were not familiar to other students or teachers who sign.”

Luna Perez was reading at a 1st to 2nd grade level at that time, when he was then in his early 20s. The psychologist reported that if the school district had provided Perez with the necessary accessible language assistance, the student likely would have been able to attend college.

“The allegation in the [ADA] complaint is Miguel suffered immense harm as a result of Sturgis’ conduct,” said Martinez, his lawyer. “That harm manifested itself in emotional harm and [Luna Perez] having to go the Michigan School for the Deaf and [do] four years of high school again.”

A vocational expert has estimated that the harm he has suffered will likely lower Luna Perez’s lifetime earnings by 40 percent, Martinez said.

Luna Perez’s case resembles in some respects a special education case the Supreme Court decided six years ago, Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools. That case involved an underlying lawsuit in which the family of a girl with cerebral palsy who was denied the use of a service dog sued her school district under the ADA. And the question before the high court was whether the family had to exhaust administrative proceedings under the IDEA before it could proceed with the separate suit under the ADA.

In Fry, the court held that IDEA procedures need not be exhausted when the essence, or “gravamen,” of a lawsuit centers on a violation of other federal disabilities law rather than the special education law’s core guarantee of a free appropriate public education. (The justices sent the family’s case back for further consideration of some factual issues, and the parties later settled.)

The Sturgis school district relies heavily on Fry, arguing that it is clear that Luna Perez is seeking relief for the denial of a free appropriate public education and thus he must exhaust all of the IDEA’s administrative proceedings before he can pursue his ADA claims. The district goes on to cast doubt on whether Luna Perez would have any valid ADA claims for money damages for emotional distress after the high court held last term that such claims were not available under several federal disabilities laws.

Martinez responds by arguing that the district’s approach would disincentivize settlements of IDEA complaints and deprive students with disabilities of their rights under other federal laws such as the ADA.

“The court should make clear that Miguel did not have to reject an IDEA settlement to preserve his ADA claim for damages,” Martinez said.

Luna Perez has the Biden administration on his side, as well as several disability rights groups and others.

Perry A. Zirkel, a professor emeritus of law and education at Lehigh University and a leading expert on special education law, said in an interview that he considers the Supreme Court’s decision to take up this case one more example of the justices sidestepping some of the big issues in special education while settling arcane questions under the IDEA about access to the courts.

Still, he said, “If it is in the mutual interest of parents and school districts to resolve these complaints without all the transactional costs, then settlement is a good thing. But if I settle, I shouldn’t have to give up my other claims.”

A student’s pride in finally earning a diploma

Luna Perez, in the statement released by his lawyers, speaks with pride of his achievements at the Michigan School for the Deaf and his still unrealized aspirations for a career and fulfilling adulthood. He graduated from the state school in June 2020 with a diploma, not a certificate of completion.

“At MSD, I learned so many new words and signs,” Luna Perez said. “I learned construction. I helped others in my class to measure, and I got to build chairs and tables. I learned about building houses. I want to build houses as a job.

“I want to make my own choices.”

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