By Holly Marie Wilson, Esq. and Brianna Prislipsky, Esq.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court of the United States sided with a deaf Michigan student, Miguel Luna Perez, holding that students who have entered into settlement agreements resolving their Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) claims can also pursue monetary damages against schools under different federal laws without first exhausting their IDEA administrative remedies.  

Perez brought claims against Sturgis Public Schools for its alleged failure to provide him with proper educational accommodations in light of his disability. Perez had consistently been placed on the honor roll and progressed from grade to grade without incident. However, in the months leading up to Perez’s graduation, he was informed that he would not be permitted to graduate due to unsatisfactory grades. Perez’s parents also learned that the teaching aides who had been assigned to Perez did not know sign language and thus were unable to communicate with him properly. The Perez family further alleged that the school awarded him inflated grades and continued to advance him between years regardless of his actual educational progress.

After reaching a settlement with the school for his IDEA claims, Perez brought suit against Sturgis for monetary damages under different federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Sturgis argued that the Perez’s claims were barred because he did not first exhaust his administrative remedies under the IDEA. Conversely, Perez argued that exhaustion was not required because he was seeking relief that was not recognized under the IDEA.   

The district court sided with the school district and dismissed Perez’s claims, which the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld. Perez then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which accepted the issue for review.

The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit and the trial court, siding with Perez by finding that the administrative remedies requirement did not apply when the administrative process could not provide for the remedies sought. While the Court acknowledged that Congress had intended for certain education claims to be rerouted into the educational process, it held that the language of the IDEA was clear and could not be applied otherwise. As such, the trial court’s dismissal entry was reversed, and Perez was permitted to proceed with his claims.

The recent Opinion did not address two additional issues raised by the parties. The first, argued by Perez, was that the IDEA’s administrative exhaustion requirement is susceptible to a “futility exception,” meaning the requirement does not apply when exhaustion would ultimately prove futile. The other, raised by the school district, was that monetary damages are not available under the ADA, so Perez will ultimately not be able to collect the monetary damages he seeks in the lawsuit.

Moving forward, a student’s participation in an existing administrative process may not preclude future or even parallel litigation. Furthermore, entities involved in pre-suit matters should consider what effect this decision may have on their engagement with the administrative process, given that subsequent litigation is likely to result if the claimants have potential grounds to seek compensatory damages.

This decision may signal more significant litigation in the future now that certain claimants may forgo the administrative process entirely. If you have any questions regarding this decision or its impact on potential litigation, or if you have any question regarding liability of schools or any educational institution, please contact one of Reminger’s Education Law attorneys.

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