In Perez v. Sturgis, ___ US___ (2023), the Supreme Court has in one mighty blow cleaved the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) exhaustion requirement from many claims based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or similar federal statutes. The echoes of that blow can be expected to reverberate across school systems nationally.
Justice Gorsuch on behalf of the Court provided a succinct history of the litigation. Miguel Luna Perez, a deaf student whose parents only spoke Spanish, was enrolled in Sturgis Public School District in Michigan from age 9 to 20. To access instruction, Perez required sign language interpretation. The Perez family alleged that Sturgis either provided interpreters who were unqualified (including one teaching herself sign language on the job) or not provided at all. The family also alleged that Sturgis misrepresented Miguel’s progress, saying he would graduate on time form high school but then shortly before graduation saying he would not receive a diploma.
The Perez family filed a due process complaint and entered into a settlement whereby Sturgis would provide all the forward looking equitable relief they sought. They then filed an ADA lawsuit seeking backward looking relief. Sturgis moved to dismiss for failure to exhaust because of the settlement agreement, which the District Court granted and the Sixth Circuit upheld. Because of a split among the circuits, the Supreme Court took up the matter.
The focus of the Court’s review is a portion of the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. 1415(l), which states:
Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to restrict or limit the rights, procedures, and remedies available under the Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or other Federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities, except that before the filing of a civil action under such laws seeking relief that is also available under this subchapter, the procedures under subsections (f) and (g) shall be exhausted to the same extent as would be required had the action been brought under this subchapter.
The Perez family argued that this section meant that exhaustion was required only if the family filed suit under another federal law for remedies available under the IDEA. As the Perez’s ADA claim sought compensatory damages – which both parties agreed was not available under the IDEA – the family said exhaustion requirements did not apply to their ADA claim.
The school system countered that exhaustion was required where the non-IDEA claim sought to address the same underlying harm, which in this case was the failure to provide qualified interpreters.
While suggesting both readings of the statute were plausible, the Court found that the family’s was more consistent with 1415(l)’s terms.
Distilling the Opinion’s analysis of the uses and definitions of “remedies” and “relief”, the Court found that 1415(l) did not restrict or limit remedies under other federal statutes unless the relief sought was available under the IDEA. Since compensatory damages are not available under the IDEA, the Court found such claims were not barred.
Discussion of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (580 U.S. ___ (2017)
Sturgis claimed that the Court’s previous decision in Fry barred this interpretation. The Court disagreed, stating that Fry specifically reserved on this question, and further stating that Fry held that 1415(l) exhaustion did not apply unless the plaintiff sought relief for a denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The Court found that both cases asked “Whether a plaintiff must exhaust administrative processes under IDEA that cannot supply what he seeks,” and in both cases the answer was “no.”
While the parties sought rulings on such matters as whether IDEA’s exhaustion requirement is susceptible to a judge-made futility exception, whether the ADA allows the compensatory damages Mr. Perez sought etc., the Court found that those issues were not before it, and that its holding was that §1415(l) did not preclude Mr. Perez’s ADA lawsuit.
The Court’s thinking appears to be that IDEA and (non-FAPE) ADA claims can be easily separated. This may be in part because of the nature of the facts in Perez: had the student not required an IEP or a 504 plan, the school system would still have had to provide a qualified interpreter under the ADA. But imagine the issue had been that the student wasn’t provided occupational therapy: presumably that would only be an IDEA violation, but the parents’ bar has vivid imaginations and can be expected to assert some theory where such a denial is both an IDEA and an ADA violation.
Where possible, school systems should make sure their IDEA services are compliant with the ADA or find another method of providing services. Unfortunately, finding qualified sign language interpreters (and other related service providers) is difficult in the current employment market, especially in smaller communities like Sturgis.
The conditions of the agreement between the Perez family and the school system are not set out in any decision; in local practice, it is common to have a general release of all claims in the agreement. This practice is strongly recommended, in light of Perez. That said, parents’ counsel are likely to demand much more for such a release.
Part of the unstated basis for the Court’s decision may be a response to lower court decisions holding that because the Perez family settled the due process hearing, they were unable to exhaust administrative remedies and could not bring their ADA/504 claims. This legal hurdle in effect requires that the family and the school system go to hearing even if they agreed on a resolution of FAPE issues, which is contrary to the speedy resolution requirements of the IDEA.
Counsel are recommended to review the previous decisions in Perez: (Perez, Next Friend of Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Sch., No. 1:18-CV-1134, 2019 WL 8105854 (W.D. Mich. June 20, 2019), report and recommendation adopted sub nom; Perez , next friend of Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Sch., No. 1:18-CV-1134, 2019 WL 6907138 (W.D. Mich. Dec. 19, 2019), aff’d sub nom. Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Sch., 3 F.4th 236 (6th Cir. 2021)) for further facts and analysis.
 This article uses “interpreter” rather than “translator,” as interpreters work in real time to relay information from one language to another, whereas a translator works with written documents. See e.g.
William Fields is Counsel in PK Law’s Education, Labor, and Employment Group. In his practice, Bill focuses on the representation of county school boards across Maryland, as well as representing private schools, higher education institutions, and private sector employers with employment and labor issues. As an Assistant Attorney General, Bill was counsel to the Maryland State Department of Education and the Maryland School for the Deaf. Previously, Bill was an Assistant Public Defender in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Parental Defense Division, and Staff Attorney with Disability Rights Maryland. He can be reached at 410-740-3177 or firstname.lastname@example.org.