Perez v Sturgis: Supreme Court Rules 9-0 in Favor of Michigan Student Who Was Denied Appropriate Special Education

In a rare 9-0 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Petitioner Miguel Luna Perez: An Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit seeking compensatory damages for the denial of a free and appropriate education may proceed without exhausting the administrative processes of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act because the remedy sought is not one IDEA provides.

Today, just two months after oral arguments were presented, Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the Court, which had to decide 1) whether, and in what circumstances, courts should excuse further exhaustion of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA) administrative proceedings under Section 1415(l) when such proceedings would be futile, and 2) whether Section 1415(l) requires exhaustion of a non-IDEA claim seeking money damages that are not available under the IDEA.

The case was based on the experiences of Miguel Luna Perez, who was denied a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for years while attending Sturgis (Michigan) Public Schools (SPS). For 12 years, SPS advanced Miguel Luna Perez from grade to grade and inflated his grades to the point he repeatedly made honor roll, even though he couldn’t read or write—and then just before graduation told his family he would receive a certificate of completion but not a high school diploma. His experiences with SPS during those years are heartbreaking.

Miguel’s family immigrated to Michigan from Mexico. When he was 9 years old, he started school at SPS as an English learner and as a deaf student. He received an IEP, was assigned an unqualified aide who made up signs because she didn’t know sign language, and it gets worse from there. Yet, he advanced from grade to grade and continued to make honor roll over and over again. (Read court records for the case.)

Miguel’s family filed a complaint and SPS agreed to pay for him to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf after high school and to provide the family with sign language instruction.

What SPS didn’t address is the pain of a 9-year-old boy unable to communicate with classmates and teachers, who gradually grew into a teenager with the same communication struggles and inabilities to read and write. In the words of his lawyer Roman Martinez, SPS “neglected Miguel, denied him an education, and lied to his parents about the progress he was allegedly making in school.”

Early Indicator of Justice’s Direction

January 18, 2023, after the Court heard oral arguments. One exchange between Justice Kagan and Sturgis counsel Shay Dvoretzky gave special education advocates reason to hope Justices would decide in favor of Perez:

Shay Dvoretzky: . . . And, lastly, on the equities, as I was saying to Justice Barrett, in light of the state of the law right now, it’s not clear that there even are compensatory damages available under the ADA. And so there is no great inequity in holding as a default rule that once you have gotten the FAPE, which was Congress’s, again, primary purpose in enacting the IDEA, once you’ve gotten that, at that point, you have gotten —

Justice Kagan: Well, no, no one’s decided that question yet, Mr. Dvoretzky. So, while those damages remain open and potentially available, the question is, you know, what should Miguel have done? I think Mr. Martinez stood up and the first words out of his mouth were Miguel did everything right. And it’s hard for me to see how that’s not true. What should Miguel have done differently from what he did do in this case?

Shay Dvoretzky: I think a plaintiff in that situation has several options. One is, as part of the settlement, to negotiate whatever compensation he thinks he’s entitled to for his non-IDEA claims. Another is to negotiate as part of the settlement a waiver from the school of the exhaustion requirement and then proceed to court. So there were options as part of that global settlement to get —

Justice Kagan: But, you know —

Shay Dvoretzky: — the full relief he was asking for.

Justice Kagan: — Sturgis was not, for all we know, offering any of those things. So what’s he supposed to do?

Shay Dvoretzky: Negotiate, I mean, as in all settlements.

Justice Kagan: Better — negotiate better. Just pound his fist on the table with your legal rule such that Sturgis doesn’t have to offer any of those things because he can’t — he has two choices. He can either reject a good settlement which is enabling him to receive educational services or give up on the potential, which this statute clearly gives him, of getting compensatory damages as well under the ADA.

Shay Dvoretzky: Justice Kagan, I think that takes us back to the default rule point, which is whichever rule this Court adopts, either side could, if it wanted, pound its fist on the table and insist on one outcome or another. Either you can — either a plaintiff can insist on getting full recovery or a waiver or a school district could insist if it wanted to on no deal unless it gets a waiver. I mean, I’m sorry, unless it gets a full release. The other point that I’ll make as a practical matter, though, and I think it’s also true in this case, although these facts haven’t been developed because the case hasn’t been litigated, school districts have an interest in starting to provide the FAPE as soon as they are aware and as soon as their lawyers make their aware — make them aware that there has been some deficiency. It’s not in a school district’s interests to say we’re going to hold the FAPE hostage.

Justice Kagan: But parents also have an interest in that, and that suggests why your sort of the sky is falling isn’t going to happen, because, of course, parents are not going to bypass the process that gives them most speedily, most inexpensively, the opportunity to get the education fixed. So, yes, they’re going to go and — and try to get that, but, at — you know, at the same time, they may also want, you know, I’m entitled under the ADA for damages.

Shay Dvoretzky: Justice Kagan, I don’t know that as a practical matter that that view of how parents will operate is always going to be true. Having spoken —

Justice Kagan: Well, I don’t know that your view of how school districts are going to operate is always going to be true. As between the two, it strikes me that actually it’s the parents that have the greater incentive to get the education fixed for their child.

Shay Dvoretzky: I think that sometimes that —

Justice Kagan: This isn’t litigation being run by a lot of rapacious lawyers, you know. This is litigation being run by parents who are trying to do right by their kids.

Court’s March 21, 2023 Opinion

The Court’s opinion cites “two salient features” of Section 1415(l):

First, the statute sets forth this general rule: “Nothing in [IDEA] shall be construed to restrict” the ability of individuals to seek “remedies” under the ADA or “other Federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities.” Second, the statute offers a qualification, prohibiting certain suits with this language: “[E]xcept that before the filing of a civil action under such [other federal] laws seeking relief that is also available under this subchapter, the procedures under subsections (f) and (g) shall be exhausted.” In turn, subsections (f) and (g) provide affected children and their parents with the right to a “due process hearing” before a local or state administrative official, §1415(f)(1)(A), followed by an “appeal” to the state education agency, §1415(g)(1).

The opinion then examines the interpretations of Perez and Sturgis, and ultimately favors Perez, stating:

The statute’s administrative exhaustion requirement applies only to suits that “see[k] relief . . . also available under” IDEA. And that condition simply is not met in situations like ours, where a plaintiff brings a suit under another federal law for compensatory damages—a form of relief everyone agrees IDEA does not provide.

Admittedly, our interpretation treats “remedies” (the key term in the first clause) as synonymous with the “relief” a plaintiff “seek[s]” (the critical phrase found in the second clause). But a number of contextual clues persuade us that is exactly how an ordinary reader would understand this particular provision. Not only does §1415(l) begin by directing a reader to the subject of remedies, offering first a general and then a qualifying rule on the subject. In at least two other places, IDEA treats “remedies” and “relief” as synonyms, and we cannot conceive a persuasive reason why the statute would operate differently only here. Section 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii) directs courts in IDEA cases to “grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate.” (Emphasis added.) That statutory instruction, we have said, authorizes courts to grant “as an available remedy” the “reimbursement” of past educational expenses. School Comm. of Burlington v. Department of Ed. of Mass., 471 U. S. 359, 369–370 (1985) (emphasis added). Elsewhere, IDEA sometimes bars those who reject a school district’s settlement offer from recovering attorney’s fees for later work if “the relief finally obtained . . . is not more favorable . . . than the offer.” §1415(i)(3)(D)(i)(III) (emphasis added). Once more, relief means remedy.

Nor is IDEA particularly unusual in treating remedies and relief as synonyms. Other provisions in the U. S. Code do too. By way of example, 18 U. S. C. §3626(d) provides that “[t]he limitations on remedies in this section shall not apply to relief entered by a State court based solely upon claims arising under State law.” (Emphases added.) Likewise, 28 U. S. C. §3306(a)(2)–(3) indicate that “the United States . . . may obtain . . . a remedy under this chapter . . . or . . . any other relief the circumstances may require.” (Emphases added.)

Influencing our thinking as well is the fact that the second clause in §1415(l) refers to claims “seeking relief” available under IDEA. To “seek” is “[t]o ask for” or “request.” Oxford English Dictionary, at 877. And often enough the phrase “seeking relief” or some variant of it is used in the law to refer to the remedies a plaintiff requests. Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for example, a plaintiff’s complaint must include a list of requested remedies, or what the law calls “a demand for the relief sought.” Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 8(a)(3) (emphasis added); see also Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 54(c) (similar). Many of our opinions as well similarly speak of the “relief” a plaintiff “seeks” as the remedies he requests. See, e.g., South Carolina v. North Carolina, 558 U. S. 256, 260 (2010) (describing the “relief” South Carolina “seeks” as the remedies demanded in its “Prayer for Relief”); New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn., Inc. v. City of New York, 590 U. S. , (2020) (per curiam) (slip op., at 1) (describing “the precise relief that petitioners requested in the prayer” as two remedies, a declaration and an injunction); Bowen v. Massachusetts, 487 U. S. 879, 893 (1988) (discussing 5 U. S. C. §702’s reference to an “action . . . seeking relief other than money damages”)

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