Unanimous Supreme Court Finds Lip Service not Good Enough for Disabled Student

On March 21, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a deaf high school student from Sturgis, Michigan, could proceed with a lawsuit against his school district under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

At issue in Luna Perez v. Sturgis  Public Schools,   ____ U.S. _____ (2023), was the school district’s failure to provide appropriate assistance to the student, including failing to provide an aide who spoke sign language, which resulted in the student not receiving the required public education and being denied the opportunity to graduate from high school.

Miguel Perez attended the Sturgis public schools from ages nine through 20. While he was a high school student, Perez and his family filed an administrative complaint with the Michigan Department of Education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) alleging he was not receiving the appropriate services pursuant to an individual education plan under the IDEA. 

The parties settled that claim, with the school district promising to provide the appropriate assistance. The family then filed suit in federal court under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), making a claim for compensatory (money) damages. 

The school district moved to dismiss the ADA claim, alleging that, because the parties were still in the process of implementing the settlement under the IDEA, Perez could not bring an ADA claim because he had not fully exhausted his remedies under the IDEA. The ADA requires that a student “seeking relief that is also available under” the IDEA to first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures. Because, however, the IDEA does not provide for an award of money damages, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Perez was not required to exhaust IDEA remedies before bringing an ADA claim against the school district. 

This ruling opens an additional avenue for families of disabled students to force public school districts to engage in meaningful interaction to address disabilities. The Supreme Court was offended by what was essentially lip service by the school district with respect to Perez.

The district claimed it was providing the required support to assist with Perez’s educational needs, but one of his aides could not speak sign language (which resulted in time-consuming note writing) and other aides who left Perez alone for large chunks of the day. Despite having promised for years that it was providing appropriate support for Perez, only months before his scheduled graduation the school district announced that it would not let Perez graduate. 

With this ruling, public school districts will be exposed to claims for money damages which were much harder to make or enforce prior to the ruling. If you have any questions about the application or holding in this case, Plunkett Cooney’s attorneys are ready to answer your questions. 

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