The U.S. Supreme Court appeared inclined to rule in favor of a deaf Michigan student on a key legal question in his lawsuit alleging that his school district failed to provide him adequate educational assistance for 12 years in violation of federal disability law.
Justice Elena Kagan said during the arguments Wednesday that it appeared that the student, Miguel Luna Perez, “did everything right” by accepting a settlement from his school district on his educational claims under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and then filing a lawsuit seeking monetary damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“What should Miguel have done differently from what he did do in this case?” Kagan asked the lawyer representing the 3,000-student Sturgis school district in Sturgis, Mich.
The justices heard 90 minutes of arguments in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools (Case No. 21-887) involving Luna Perez, who is now 27 and was in the courtroom along with several sign-language interpreters to help him comprehend. His underlying lawsuit contends that the Sturgis district failed to provide him with trained sign-language interpreters for years and that he has suffered emotional distress and economic harms from his diminished abilities to communicate.
The high court appeal involves two somewhat arcane but important questions in special education law.
The first is 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 monetary damages, is not available under the IDEA. The second is whether courts may conclude that it would be futile to require going through all administrative proceedings when the IDEA complaint has been settled.
An awkwardly worded provision of the IDEA says that nothing in that law may be construed as limiting the legal remedies available to plaintiffs under the ADA or other federal laws, but that to the extent they are seeking relief that is also available under the IDEA (which is typically educational assistance) they must exhaust the administrative process under the special education law before going to court under other laws.
“Congress carefully crafted those procedures, and it wanted parents and school districts to go through them because of the primacy” of a free appropriate public education, or FAPE, under the IDEA, said Shay Dvoretzky, the lawyer representing the Sturgis district.
Responding to Kagan’s question about what Luna Perez should have done differently once they had a settlement of their IDEA claims, Dvoretzky said they could have negotiated for a waiver of the exhaustion requirement or even negotiated his claims for monetary damages as part of the settlement process.
“Negotiate better?” Kagan responded. “Just pound his fist on the table with your legal rule? … He has two choices. He can either reject a good settlement, which is enabling him to receive educational services, or give up on the potential—which this statute clearly gives him—of getting compensatory damages as well under the ADA.”
Student’s advocates argue against ‘pointless administrative proceedings’
Roman Martinez, the lawyer representing Luna Perez, argued that exhaustion of IDEA procedures wasn’t necessary in Luna Perez’s case because the student was seeking money damages under the ADA, a remedy not available under the special education law.
Secondly, he said, “Miguel’s settlement fully exhausted the IDEA procedures. Further exhaustion is unnecessary and it’s futile because it would be pointless. Miguel has already received everything he’s entitled to under the IDEA statute.”
Under the settlement, Luna Perez was sent to the Michigan School for the Deaf, where he attended for four additional years of high school instruction and made gains for some, but not all, of his communication deficits. He graduated from the school in 2020.
“Congress didn’t punish kids for saying yes to favorable IDEA settlements,” Martinez said. “One way or the other, this [ADA] case should proceed.”
Anthony A. Yang, an assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, also argued in support of Luna Perez, saying that the path the student took was “exactly right.”
“He settled his IDEA claim, obtained prompt educational relief, and then filed a separate ADA action for compensatory damages, things he couldn’t get under the IDEA,” Yang said.
Under a ruling in favor of the school district by a federal appeals court, Luna Perez “would have had to reject a favorable IDEA settlement and forgo the attorneys’ fees, delay needed educational relief, and pursue pointless administrative proceedings,” Yang added. “That makes no sense.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked some probing questions of Martinez and Yang, but he may have been playing devil’s advocate. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked Yang about whether federal laws required schools to provide “auxiliary aides regardless of the cost” or whether a FAPE sometimes requires “very expensive expenditures by a district.”
But most other justices who spoke up during the argument appeared sympathetic to the arguments on behalf of Luna Perez. (Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh remained uncharacteristically silent throughout.)
Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Yang whether the federal government would rather Luna Perez win on the issue of exhaustion not being necessary because the remedy being sought was monetary damages, or on the idea that requiring exhaustion in a settled case would be futile. (That type of question is usually a good sign for that side of the case.)
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson suggested several times that the text of the IDEA provision at issue and its legislative history support Luna Jackson’s case.
“At least as I read the statute, Congress is contemplating that you’ll have a situation in which there’s a civil action that’s seeking relief that is not available under the IDEA,” Jackson said. “So I take this to mean that Congress thought that dual actions at least in some circumstances were possible and that was fine.”
A sharp exchange about districts’ and parents’ approaches to special education
Dvoretzky several times sought to invoke the court’s 2017 decision in a similar special education case, 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. 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 “gravamen,” or essence, of a lawsuit centered on a violation of other federal disabilities law rather than the special education law’s core guarantee of a FAPE.
Dvoretzky said that “the context of what Congress was trying to achieve in the IDEA, which, as Fry recognized, was primarily to ensure that students get a FAPE first and foremost—that does suggest our reading [of the exhaustion provision] because otherwise parents could circumvent that by going straight to court without the benefit of the educational experts that Congress wanted to put in place.”
Kagan was the author of the Fry decision, which was an 8-0 judgment of the court largely in favor of the student’s position. (The late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat was still vacant at that time).
Dvoretzky said school districts have an interest in providing a FAPE to students who require one as soon as possible.
“It’s not in a school district’s interest to say we’re going to hold the FAPE hostage,” he said. The comment led to a sharp exchange between him and Kagan.
“But parents also have an interest in that,” Kagan said. “And that suggests why your, sort of, ‘the sky is falling’ isn’t going to happen because, of course, parents are not going to bypass the process that gives them most speedily, most inexpensively, the opportunity to get the education fixed.”
Dvoretzky replied that he wasn’t sure, “as a practical matter, that that view of how parents will operate is always going to be true.”
To which Kagan said, “Well, I don’t know that your view of how school districts are going to operate is always going to be true. As between the two, it strikes me that actually it’s the parents that have the greater incentive to get the education fixed for their child.”
Special education litigation isn’t being pursued by “a lot of rapacious lawyers,” Kagan said. “This is litigation being run by parents who are trying to do right by their kids.”
One very interested party in the courtroom
Sitting in the front row of the public section of the courtroom during all of this was Luna Perez, aided by four interpreters working two at a time and alternating about halfway through the argument.
One was a Certified Hearing Interpreter using American Sign Language, the other a Certified Deaf Interpreter. Luna Perez’s legal team explained that the latter helps break down concepts for a deaf person using miming or other gestures in addition to ASL.
Luna Perez focused intently on the interpreters’ signs, but sometimes looked up at the mahogany bench or around the ornate courtroom.
“It felt to me that they really listened well to the lawyers. I appreciated that,” Luna Perez said through his interpreters after the argument. “I want to win, and hope that others like me get interpreters.”
A decision in the case is expected by late June.