Significant Special Education Case to Come Before the Supreme Court

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The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, a case involving the question of whether a plaintiff must exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in order to maintain suit for relief under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Facts

Miguel Perez, who is deaf, emigrated from Mexico to Michigan when he was nine years old. The Sturgis Public School District assigned him a classroom aide who was not trained to work with deaf students and did not know sign language. Despite receiving As and Bs, and being on the Honor Roll every semester, the school informed his family just months before graduation that he did not qualify for a diploma but was only eligible for a “certification of completion.”

Initial Complaint

Perez filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education alleging that Sturgis denied him an adequate education and violated federal and state disability laws. In response to Sturgis’ motion to dismiss, the administrative law judge dismissed some of the claims but set a hearing for the IDEA claim.

Before the hearing, Perez settled with the school district. The school district agreed to pay for Perez to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf and for any “post-secondary compensatory education.” In addition, the school district agreed to pay for sign language instruction for Perez and his family and pay for the family’s attorney’s fees.

Federal Court Case

A few months after the settlement, Perez sued the Sturgis Public Schools and the Sturgis Board of Education in federal district court. He raised a couple of claims, including an ADA claim, alleging that the school had discriminated against him by not providing him the resources necessary for him to fully participate in class. He sought both declaratory relief and compensatory damages for his emotional distress.

Sturgis moved to dismiss the case arguing that the IDEA required Perez to exhaust administrative remedies before filing an ADA claim. Sturgis argued that since Perez settled his IDEA claim, the IDEA barred his ADA claim. The district court agreed with Sturgis and dismissed his claims. Perez appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Case

The Sixth Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, upheld the district court’s decision, finding that the crux of Perez’s ADA claim is that he was denied an adequate education. Based on this finding, the court found that the IDEA requires that Perez exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA before bringing his ADA claim, even when the relief sought by Perez under the ADA is not available under the IDEA. According to the Sixth Circuit, § 1415(l) of the IDEA requires parents exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures “to the same extent as would be required had the action been brought under the IDEA,” before bringing any suit under federal law if the suit involves a claim alleging the denial of a free appropriate public education.

The court also rejected Perez’s claim that his failure to exhaust administrative remedies should be excused because it would have been futile to go through the administrative process since it could not provide damages for his emotional distress and that he had obtained all of the educational relief available under the IDEA through the settlement. The court found that § 1415(l) does not come with a “futility exception.”

The dissenting opinion in the Sixth Circuit notes that Perez’s ADA claim is not based on the school district’s failure to provide educational services but rather on its failure to provide appropriate interpretation services, which is a classic ADA claim. The dissent found that the majority opinion’s focus on the fact that Perez’s factual allegations involve his education, deprives him, and other disabled students like him, of their ability to seek relief and damages under the ADA.

With respect to the futility argument, the dissent stated that the majority opinion, in finding no “futility exception” in § 1415(l), ignores the explanatory statements made by the legislators who wrote the provision. The dissent noted that § 1415(l) was passed by the legislature after the sponsors of the bill “explicitly and repeatedly” stated that exhaustion of administrative remedies should be excused when “it is improbable that adequate relief can be obtained by pursuing administrative remedies,” including where “the hearing officer lacks the authority to grant the relief sought,” which is exactly the case with Perez.

U.S. Supreme Court

On October 3, 2022, the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case.

The questions presented are:

1) Whether, and in what circumstances, courts should excuse further exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative proceedings under Section 1415(l) when such proceedings would be futile; and

2) Whether Section 1415(l) requires exhaustion of a non-IDEA claim seeking money damages that are not available under the IDEA.

As of Nov. 10, 2022, the hearing for this case had not yet been scheduled.

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