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By Tia J. Combs and Sean C. Harrison
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a rare 9-0 decision in Miguel Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, extending its decision in Fry v. Napoleon County Schools that exhaustion under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is not always a prerequisite for seeking relief under other federal antidiscrimination statutes.
Miguel Luna Perez began attending schools in Sturgis Public School District at the age of nine. Because Perez is deaf, Sturgis provided him classroom aides who translated his instruction into sign language. Sturgis consistently awarded Perez passing grades and continued to advance him from grade to grade. Based upon this, Perez’s parents believed he was on schedule to graduate high school with his class and receive a regular high school diploma.
However, several months before Perez’s graduation, the district revealed that he would not be awarded a regular diploma. At that point, Perez’s parents discovered that the classroom aides he had been assigned were either unqualified or absent from the classroom for periods of several hours. Sturgis had allegedly misrepresented Perez’s educational progress by inflating his grades and promoting him each year, despite his lack of progress.
When Perez’s parents found out he was not on schedule to receive a regular diploma, they filed an IDEA Complaint with the Michigan Department of Education, alleging that the district had failed in its duties under the IDEA to provide Perez with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Prior to an administrative hearing, the parties reached a settlement, and Sturgis agreed to provide Perez “all the forward-looking equitable relief he sought.” This equitable relief included additional schooling at the Michigan School for the Deaf.
After settling his complaint under the IDEA, Perez filed suit against Sturgis in federal district court under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), seeking compensatory damages for emotional distress. However, the District Court dismissed Perez’s suit, reasoning that Perez had not exhausted all the IDEA’s dispute resolution procedures because he had settled his case. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, concluding it was bound by the circuit’s precedent addressing the issue.
In taking up Perez’s appeal, the Court acknowledged the split among circuits in interpreting Section 1415(l) of the IDEA, which details the exhaustion requirement:
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 [42 U.S.C. 12101 et seq.], title V of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 [29 U.S.C. 790 et seq.], 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 Court broke Section 1415(l) down into two sections: A general rule—“’Nothing in [IDEA] shall be construed to restrict’ the ability of individuals to seek ‘remedies’ under the ADA or ‘other Federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities[,]” and a qualification to the rule—“except that before the filing of an action under such laws seeking relief that is also available under this subchapter, the procedures under subsections (f) and (g) shall be exhausted . . .” (subsections (f) and (g) being the IDEA’s dispute resolution procedures).
Based on IDEA’s synonymous use of “relief” and “remedy” throughout, as well as similar usage in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, other federal statutes, and previous Supreme Court decisions, the Court held that Section 1415(l) requires a plaintiff to “exhaust the administrative process found in subsections (f) and (g) only to the extent that he pursues a suit under another federal law for remedies the IDEA provides.” In this case, Perez sought monetary damages under the ADA, which are unavailable under the IDEA. The Court concluded that “nothing in [Section 1415(l)] bars [Perez’s] way” from pursuing his claims under the ADA even though his ADA claim was admittedly based on a denial of FAPE.
The Court’s decision in Perez departs from prior case law in that it allows students and parents to go directly into court seeking monetary damages in cases which previously would have needed to go through the IDEA hearing process first. Notably, the new holding will not apply in cases where a student seeks a remedy traditionally available under the IDEA. For example, Perez’s parents sought reimbursement for his tuition at the Michigan School for the Deaf. This would still only be available through the IDEA administrative process. In the future, parents will be faced with deciding between starting their cases in court, where they might obtain monetary damages, and exhausting the IDEA administrative process, where they can seek compensatory education, reimbursement for enrollment in private schools, reimbursement for private evaluations, or a directive for a district to institute corrective action.
For more information, please contact Tia J. Combs at [email protected] or Sean C. Harrison at [email protected], or your local FMG attorney.