Supreme Court to hear a special education case on January 18, 2023.

On January 18, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a special education case, Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools.  In this case, the Supreme Court will consider whether families that have settled claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) can pursue lawsuits under the Americans with Disabilities Act without fully exhausting all administrative proceedings (e.g., due process hearings) under the IDEA.

The case involved the family of Miguel Perez, a deaf student who attended the Sturgis public schools in Michigan. When he was nine-years old, he and his family emigrated from Mexico and moved to Sturgis, Michigan. In the 12 years, Miguel was educated in the Sturgis Public Schools, the district failed to provide him with a qualified sign language interpreter. During this time, the family assumed that Miguel was on track to earn a high school diploma because he had received As and Bs in most of his classes and always made the school’s honor roll.  A few months before graduation, however, Miguel’s parents were told that he would receive a certificate of completion instead of a regular diploma.

Miguel’s parents filed a due process hearing request with the Michigan Department of Education alleging that the Sturgis public schools had failed to provide Miguel with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the IDEA. Before a due process hearing could be held, Miguel’s parents and the school district settled the claim.  As part of the settlement, the school agreed to pay for Miguel (a) to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf, for post-secondary compensatory education; (b) for sign language instruction for Miguel and his family; and (c) for the attorney’s fees accrued by the Perez family. As part of the settlement,  the Perez family agreed to dismiss the case against the Sturgis school district and would not bring another claim under the IDEA. The administrative law judge (ALJ) dismissed the case.

The Perez family then filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court against the Sturgis Public Schools under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The parents alleged that Sturgis Public Schools discriminated against Miguel by not providing the resources necessary for him to fully participate in class. As part of the settlement, the Perez family sought compensatory damages for the school district’s failure and emotional distress.

The attorneys for the school district argued that before parents could file a claim under the ADA, they had to exhaust their administrative remedies under the IDEA (i.e., due process hearing). The district further asserted that Miguel’s parents had not exhausted the administrative procedures because they settled before the administrative procedures were completed so the lawsuit was barred. The federal district court agreed with the school district and dismissed the ADA claim because the family had failed to exhaust their administrative procedures. The Perez family appealed the decision arguing that pursuing the administrative remedies would have been futile because the administrative process would not lead to monetary damages. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled for the school district and denied the Perez family’s ADA claim, ruling that by taking the settlement, Miguel Perez had not fully exhausted his options under IDEA.

Miguel’s parents filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the ruling of the 6th Circuit Court required that students with disabilities turn down even full IDEA settlements and forgo their ability to immediately receive an IDEA-mandated FAPE  to preserve their non-IDEA claims. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case on January 18 and issue their ruling in June 2023 at the latest.

Information on this case, including friend of the Court briefs by various parties, the U.S. Solicitor General’s official position on the case, and the briefs by Miquel Perez and the Sturgis Public Schools, can be found on the excellent SCOTUSblog website at https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/perez-v-sturgis-public-schools/.

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