On March 22 the Supreme Court in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, 598 U.S. ___ (2023) unanimously sided with a disabled student to find that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirements do not apply when the student is seeking only damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) or other federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities, since damages are not available under the IDEA.
Miguel Luna Perez is a 27-year-old deaf individual. He attended the Sturgis Public Schools in Michigan from the ages of 9 through 20. According to Miguel and his parents, the district assigned him aides who were unqualified or absent for long stretches of time. He also alleged the district inflated his grades and advanced him from grade level to grade level regardless of whether he made academic progress. When the time came for Miguel to graduate from high school, he and his family were surprised to learn that he would not receive a diploma.
Miguel and his family filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education alleging violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), but prior to the administrative hearing, Miguel and the district settled and the district agreed to provide Miguel all his requested forward-looking equitable relief, including additional education at Michigan School for the Deaf. However, Miguel also sought backward-looking relief in the form of compensatory damages under the ADA and subsequently filed suit alleging disability discrimination. The district moved to dismiss, arguing that Miguel had not exhausted his administrative remedies through the IDEA’s administrative due process hearing procedures under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l) because he had settled his case instead of litigating it. The trial court sided with the district and dismissed the ADA complaint, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Justice Gorsuch, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, ruled in Miguel’s favor, holding that Miguel was not required to exhaust his administrative remedies to pursue his damages claim under the ADA, even if the damages claim was premised on a denial of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”). The Court reasoned that § 1415(l) requires administrative exhaustion of a claim only when the plaintiff seeks remedies available under the IDEA. Here, the student had settled all his requests for the type of equitable relief available under the IDEA and was seeking only compensatory damages. Since this case was decided on the pleadings, the Supreme Court did not pass on the merits of Miguel’s claim or determine whether damages were actually available to him under the ADA. Instead, it simply held that Miguel could proceed with his claim for backward-looking compensatory damages under the ADA despite the fact that he never completed an IDEA due process hearing.
The Court acknowledged its prior ruling in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 580 U.S. 154 (2017), which held that exhaustion was required for ADA claims, claims brought under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, or similar laws premised on a denial of FAPE and laid out a test for distinguishing FAPE claims from other disability discrimination claims.
But, as noted by the Court, Miguel’s case “presents an analogous but different question—whether a suit admittedly premised on the past denial of a free and appropriate education may nonetheless proceed without exhausting IDEA’s administrative processes if the remedy a plaintiff seeks is not one IDEA provides,” – i.e., compensatory damages. The Court did not address whether exhaustion would be required where a plaintiff sues under the ADA for both compensatory damages and IDEA-style equitable relief.
This case opens the door for students to pursue damages claims against districts for disability discrimination under the ADA even when the underlying IDEA claims have been settled. Because of the different statutes of limitation under the IDEA and the ADA, districts may be vulnerable to ADA-based claims for many years after the limitations period has run on an IDEA claim. When addressing disability-based disputes, districts should consider settlement agreements with students and their families that include waivers of all claims and all remedies, including those available under the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, and any other statute or theory under which students may pursue a disability-based claim.