Perez v Sturgis: Will Supreme Court’s Decision Lead to Helping or Harming Students?

January 18, 2023, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Perez v Sturgis Public Schools.

The case focuses on 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. It is 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).

Heartache and Lies Instead of FAPE

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.”

SPS can’t give Miguel back his childhood, the friends he didn’t make, the sports and clubs he didn’t participate in, or the loneliness, sadness, frustration, and pain he experienced, but according to court records, it never even attempted to make Miguel whole and address the lasting scars of the discrimination he experienced. “This shameful conduct permanently stunted Miguel’s ability to communicate with the outside world,” said Roman.

Life-Long Impact

Although SPS paid for him to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf after high school, it didn’t address the emotional impact or Miguel’s loss of college and career opportunities—or the impact of “stunted” communication abilities. After other students graduated and started the next stages of their lives, Miguel was in school, with limited communication skills, reading on an early elementary school grade level. According to an Annie E. Casey Foundation report, “Educators and researchers have long recognized the importance of mastering reading by the end of third grade. Students who fail to reach this critical milestone often falter in the later grades and drop out before earning a high school diploma.” Imagine being deaf and learning to read and sign (not made up signing that prevented him from communicating with others who are deaf) in your late teens, early 20s, more than a decade behind your peers.

Miguel and his parents pursued monetary damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but the Sixth Circuit dismissed the case because his family settled the IDEA portion of the claim through a due process hearing. (Read WrightsLaw’s rundown on the case.)

The Supreme Court’s Response

In court today, Miguel’s attorney Roman Martinez argued the following:

For 12 years, Sturgis neglected Miguel, denied him an education, and lied to his parents about the progress he was allegedly making in school. This shameful conduct permanently stunted Miguel’s ability to communicate with the outside world. It also violated two federal statutes, the IDEA and the ADA, giving different remedies to victims of discrimination. Miguel responded by doing everything the IDEA wants him to do. He filed an IDEA agency claim. He followed the IDEA settlement procedures. And he accepted a favorable settlement giving him full IDEA relief, including an immediate FAPE. Sturgis wants you to hold that this settlement extinguishes Miguel’s separate and distinct rights to money damages under the ADA. You should reject that. I want to emphasize three points. First, the text only requires exhaustion if a non-IDEA claim seeks relief that’s actually available under the IDEA. Exhaustion isn’t required in cases like this one seeking only money damages, a remedy the IDEA does not authorize. Second, Miguel’s settlement fully exhausted the IDEA procedures. Further exhaustion is unnecessary and it’s futile because it would be pointless. Miguel has already received everything he’s entitled to under the IDEA statute. And, third, the net effect of Sturgis’s arguments here is to defy the IDEA’s clear purpose. That purpose is twofold: one, getting kids a FAPE as quickly as possible, and, two, preserving their legal rights under other statutes and the Constitution. Sturgis puts these goals on a collision course with each other. In any given case, its rule will either disincentivize settlements and block immediate FAPE relief, or it will nullify rights under other statutes. That makes no sense. Congress didn’t punish kids for saying yes to favorable IDEA settlements. One way or the other, this case should proceed.”

The Justices’ questions for Roman and later to SPS’s counsel Shay Dvoretzky could be interpreted to favor Miguel, but in the world of special education, too many disappointments have occurred to predict favorable outcomes. However, it’s hard to ignore Justice Kagan’s response to Shay in the following exchange, which hits on a reality of due process cases in particular: Parents would be hard pressed to find a school district that proactively offers to make a student whole and propose resolutions that fully address denial of FAPE. In the case of Miguel, SPS moved him along for years without proactively proposing it fully address its noncompliance. Instead, parents like Miguel’s too often have to point out the noncompliance and negotiate a resolution. This takes extensive knowledge of IDEA, time, and money—a trio that are rare to find combined—and the stomach to face school systems with the budget to wage long-term lawfare.

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.

Read the entire transcript here.

Side note: Justice Kagan and SPS’s counsel might look to the Office for Civil Rights’ findings of noncompliance in relation to Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). The behaviors of these two districts—among the largest and wealthiest in the United States—provide an example of schools that do not “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.” Indeed, the amount of money FCPS has spent on legal counsel and actions it has taken against students and their families indicate FCPS believes it is in the “school district’s interests to say we’re going to hold the FAPE hostage.”

Additional Reading:

10 comments on “Perez v Sturgis: Will Supreme Court’s Decision Lead to Helping or Harming Students?

  1. Excellent article, provides the background and a sense of how oral argument before the Supreme Court unfolded. We feel cautiously optimistic about the outcome of Miguel’s case.

    1. Ana, Thank you for commenting. How has your school system addressed this issue (or is that itself part of the problem, too)?

  2. That article causes me angst. I recently retired from teaching – actually a little earlier than planned – because there were so many violations of IDEA, FAPE, and other state and federal laws being conducted by administrators, Human Resources, and teachers in three different districts. Most parents in the areas I am referring to were not aware of the violations against their child and/or were not savvy enough or financially able to seek an advocate or legal counsel. And even after they were told, they “didn’t want to rock the boat” for fear of losing the SSI.
    Administrators had “bigger fish to fry” so when they were told about violations to the IEP, ETR, FAPE, or the law, nothing was done.
    It is getting more and more difficult for those districts to find seasoned professionals in the Special Education realm, who are really there for the students, and don’t have another agenda, i.e., more money, climbing up the ladder vs staying in the classroom, etc.
    Coupled with the extensive paperwork involved with writing an IEP, now versus 5-10 years ago, teachers have overloaded classrooms with “Cross Categorical” student codes to include students who are Emotionally Disturbed, Medically Fragile, Autistic, etc., mixed together. Now that ODE has changed teachers’ licenses (?), all special education teachers can be put in an ED classroom or an Autistic classroom with no prior experience or training. Not only do the teachers suffer, but the students suffer even more – without a thought from HR or other Administrators.
    True teachers want to teach – not babysit angry students who terrorize everyone in the class, but whose parents are the ‘squeaky wheel’ about “them and them and their job) not even about the children – and the district blames the teacher for not having good “classroom management.”
    It is really sad that students lose their teacher because the Chain of Command won’t follow their own rules and all of the special education laws.

    1. Every time I read something like this, I tend to cringe. The problem seems to be one of local control. When LEA’s control what and how things are done in the special education world, these things tend to run rampant. I truly believe that the special education departments should be at least state run without interference from the local education agency. Because the conflict of interest between the school and the services being provided is too grey. When the districts or charters are in charge of how the funds are allocated, the priorities are often like shifting sand. A good start would be to lower the cost of medical insurance and increase benefits and salary of all teachers and classify them as state employees. Lets face it when LEA’s have their own rules to follow there is no one to hold them accountable except a review of how a student did on the STAAR test. If we raise the standards for how to be educated in order to perform a particular job then that job should have a standard of pay associated with that job. The way it is now, if a district or charter wants to low ball teachers and all staff they are well within their rights to do so, but in doing so who is harmed? The students. The stakes are to high to keep students raised in poverty from seeing their true potential.

      1. Thank you for your comment. You’re right: “The stakes are too high to keep students raised in poverty from seeing their true potential.” I’d say this for all kids with special education needs who may/may not be raised in poverty, too. The system is broken. States are failing LEAs, too, and USDOE and OCR are too slow to act. Generations of children have been, and will continue to be, lost. In this case, in particular, it is mind-boggling how one child went through a system for so long, with a teacher who, from reports, sounds like she made up the sign language she taught him, hence he couldn’t even communicate with other students who signed. Where were the educators who should have been acting in the best interest of the child and ensuring that all of his unique needs were met?

  3. Keep that info coming! The Sturges case situation fills the Delaware schools. No one can read, but they graduate the kids anyway. I want to help that change. By a school psychologist.

    1. Cheryl, Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately grade inflation and graduating students who can’t read or write (or have limited skills) aren’t unique to Sturgis. It’s heartbreaking.

  4. I’m so happy to see this case! It turns my stomach and is happening over and over and over. Lies, cover-ups and grade inflation — still blaming Covid for children who only missed kindergarten and taught by very capable parents!

    1. Pamela, Thank you for your comment. I hope that one day grade inflation and noncompliance will be a thing of the past. Waiting to see what happens next with this case. ~Callie

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