On March 21, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion, holding that students receiving special education services who file suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) seeking monetary compensation do not first have to exhaust administrative procedures under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). (Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools (2023) 2023 WL 2575928.) The Court’s opinion addresses a split in the circuit courts of appeal on this issue and sets a precedent that could have significant financial impacts on school districts and county offices of education.
The plaintiff, Miguel Luna Perez, attended the Sturgis Public School District from ages 9 through 20. Perez is deaf, and alleged that sign language interpreters the district provided him were either unqualified or absent for long periods of time. He also alleged that the district misrepresented his progress toward graduation. He and his parents believed he was on track to graduate with his class, but in the months prior to graduation, the district informed them that he was not able to graduate. Perez filed a due process complaint under IDEA, which he and his parents then settled with the district for the relief he sought, including additional education at the Michigan School for the Deaf. The Court defined this as “forward-looking” relief. After the settlement, Perez sued the district under ADA, seeking compensatory damages — “backward-looking” relief. The district filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that Perez had not exhausted his administrative procedures under IDEA (i.e., by filing a due process complaint that included this issue) prior to bringing his suit. The lower courts affirmed, and the Supreme Court decided to take up the case because of the split in the circuit courts.
The Court’s relatively short opinion rests on an analysis of the plain language of IDEA (20 USC 1415(l). Specifically, IDEA by its terms allows plaintiffs to seek relief under other federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities. However, IDEA also provides that if a civil action under ADA or such other federal laws seeks “relief” that is also available under IDEA, a plaintiff must exhaust administrative procedures of IDEA before initiating a lawsuit. Perez read this provision to mean that he was not required to exhaust IDEA’s administrative procedures since his ADA lawsuit sought monetary damages, a relief that is not available under IDEA. The district, on the other hand, argued that since the “relief” Perez sought under ADA was for the same underlying harm as in the IDEA complaint, he was required to exhaust IDEA’s administrative procedures.
The Court adopted Perez’s reading of the law and held that, since compensatory (monetary) damages are not available under IDEA, a plaintiff need not exhaust administrative procedures under IDEA in order to file an ADA suit seeking such damages, even if the underlying harm (e.g., failure to provide a free appropriate public education, or FAPE) is the same. The Court acknowledged that this holding required it to treat the term “remedies” as synonymous with the term “relief” in interpreting IDEA. However, the Court held that IDEA treats these terms as synonyms. Further, the Court noted that other statutes use these terms synonymously as does prior Supreme Court precedent regarding other statutes. The Court also disagreed with the district’s reliance on another Supreme Court opinion, Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (2017) 580 U.S. 154, finding that the Court in that decision conspicuously declined to rule on the issue presented in the current case.
The Court also rejected the district’s argument regarding Congress’ purpose in enacting the IDEA provision at issue. The district argued that since Congress’ intent in enacting IDEA’s exhaustion of administrative procedures requirement was to ensure that claims about educational services would be left to administrative agencies with “special expertise,” Congress could not have intended to allow lawsuits with the same underlying claims to be litigated under ADA without first satisfying the exhaustion requirement under IDEA. The Court held that it could not “replace the actual text with speculation as to Congressional intent” and “that any interpretation of a law that does more to advance the statute’s putative goal” does not make the interpretation “the law.” In other words, it would be up to Congress to amend the statute if the Court’s opinion did not reflect its intent.
The Ninth Circuit, with jurisdiction over California, has previously required plaintiffs to exhaust administrative procedures before filing suit for damages under ADA where the damages sought were intended to address a local educational agency’s failure to provide FAPE. (See, Paul G. v. Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (9th Cir. 2019) 933 F.3d 1096 and D.D. v. Los Angeles Unified School District (9th Cir. 2021) 18 F.4th 1043.) Thus, Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools represents a change to the legal landscape in California. The removal of the requirement to exhaust administrative procedures for special education claims may increase the number of legal claims filed by plaintiffs’ attorneys under ADA, including claims duplicative of due process complaints under IDEA. LEAs should be prepared for this potential onslaught of new claims by plaintiffs’ attorneys, even in some cases where they have settled previous special education claims by providing non-monetary remedies.
Any district with a question on this case or other special education issues should consult CSBA’s District and County Office of Education Legal Services at firstname.lastname@example.org or their district legal counsel.