Miguel Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, et al. 143 S. Ct. 859 (2023)

ADA Suit for Compensatory Damages after IDEA Complaint Does Not First Require Exhaustion of IDEA Administrative Processes

General Interest to School Officials
Case: Miguel Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, et al. 143 S. Ct. 859 (2023)
Date: Tuesday, March 21, 2023

On March 21, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States (Court) issued its unanimous decision in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, holding that 1) the administrative exhaustion requirement in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) applies only to suits brought under another federal law that seek relief also available under IDEA, and 2) petitioner was not required to exhaust administrative procedures under IDEA before seeking relief in the form of compensatory damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Petitioner Miguel Luna Perez, who is deaf, attended schools in Michigan’s Sturgis Public School District (District) from ages 9 through 20. When the District announced that it would not permit Mr. Perez to graduate, he and his family filed an administrative complaint with the Michigan Department of Education alleging that the District failed to provide him a free and appropriate public education as required by the IDEA . They claimed that the District supplied Mr. Perez with unqualified interpreters and misrepresented his educational progress. The parties reached a settlement in which the District promised to provide the forward-looking relief Mr. Perez sought, including additional schooling.

Mr. Perez then sued in federal district court under the ADA seeking backward-looking relief via compensatory damages. The District moved to dismiss. It claimed that 20 U. S. C. §1415(l) barred Mr. Perez from bringing his ADA claim because it requires a plaintiff “seeking relief that is also available under” IDEA to first exhaust IDEA’s administrative procedures. The district court agreed and dismissed the suit, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

In its unanimous opinion, the Court noted that, 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, followed by an “appeal” to the state education agency.

Mr. Perez’s ADA complaint was seeking compensatory damages, a remedy IDEA cannot supply. Mr. Perez argued that the statute required him to exhaust the administrative process found in subsections (f) and (g) only to the extent he pursued a suit under another federal law for remedies IDEA also provides. The District argued that the statute requires a plaintiff to exhaust subsections (f) and (g) before he may pursue a suit under another federal law if that suit seeks relief for the same underlying harm IDEA exists to address.

The Court noted that the language of the statute focuses on “remedies”, and that “everyone agrees” that the IDEA does not provide for compensatory damages. Therefore, Perez was not required to exhaust administrative procedures under IDEA before seeking compensatory damages under ADA. The Court reversed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Mary H. Bandstra, IASB Law Clerk