By Sara Kennedy, Hands & Voices HQ
The court held that a procedural requirement for the student to exhaust all remedies did not apply because the IDEA could not grant financial remedies for the student and family’s claim that appropriate services, such as a qualified sign language interpreter, were denied him from ages 9 through 20.
A Brief Case History
Taken from court transcripts and documents, the facts are these: Miguel Luna Perez, now 27 years old, enrolled in the Michigan school district at age 9 after moving to the United States from Mexico. Appropriate practices suggest that a school district would provide such a student with sign language instruction, a qualified interpreter, deaf education, and supplementary supports, related services and accommodations related to being not only a student who is deaf but also an English Language Learner (ELL) student, without much prior access to language. Instead, upon entering the school district, Mr. Perez was assigned an untrained aide to act as an interpreter. One aide on record did not have prior training working with Deaf/hard of hearing students or language development, and created her own method of signing since she did not know American Sign Language. He was placed on the honor roll every semester, passing from grade to grade and earning As and Bs, leading his parents, who spoke Spanish and were not offered a Spanish/English interpreter at meetings, to believe he was learning. Not long before graduation, his parents were called into the school and informed that their son did not qualify for a diploma. Instead, he would receive a certificate of completion to show he had attended. When his parents learned that Mr. Perez had not had access to an education of any kind, the family filed due process under the IDEA alleging that the school denied him FAPE (a free and appropriate public education, a key principle under both the IDEA law and ADA laws). A hearing was scheduled, but the two parties settled out of court before the hearing. The Sturgis district offered to pay for the Michigan School for the Deaf and other post-secondary compensatory education, with sign language instruction for the student and the family, and paid attorneys’ fees. The family accepted this immediate relief.
Later, Mr. Perez sued Sturgis Public Schools in federal court alleging discrimination under the ADA for not providing him equal access to education, including sign language interpreting from 2004-2016, and lack of access to extra-curricular events among other claims. He asked for compensatory damages for projected loss of potential wages due to the lack of an appropriate education (FAPE), emotional distress, and other relief. The school district argued that a provision in IDEA, 20 U. S. C. §1415(l), barred Mr. Perez from bringing an ADA claim without first exhausting all of IDEA’s administrative dispute resolution procedures. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and dismissed the case in 2021.
The ten-page Supreme Court decision delivered by Justice Gorsuch on March 21, 2023, allows the plaintiff’s ADA lawsuit to proceed after the 6th Circuit’s decision to dismiss.
What are the lessons learned?
The SCOTUS decision allows parents and students to pursue ADA complaints despite a previous IDEA settlement because the ADA allows for different relief or remedies (used synonymously by the Court) than what is available under the IDEA. Both laws address a student with disabilities right to a public education. Otherwise, the Perez family would have to accept the lack of FAPE until they filed the ADA claim, letting the IDEA educational failures persist. If a family rejects a settlement offer, attorney fees cannot be included, so there is some pressure on families/clients to accept settlements.
In the SCOTUS decision, the justices unanimously affirmed the family’s right to all legal remedies when a child is denied FAPE under both special education and civil rights laws. In the minds of advocates, this case reinforces the importance of qualified providers, full holistic assessments, communication and access-driven IEPs, transparency with families, English Language Learner supports and interpretation for families, and the critical need for districts to seek special consultation for unique students. A parent should not have to choose between immediate partial relief and delaying resolution with the hope of gaining more appropriate relief.
Hands & Voices ASTra* Advocates and parents are grateful to the Perez family for steadfastly pursuing their rights since 2017 (and onward) and recognize the work of Disability Rights Michigan and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) who partnered with the Perez family on this case. This victory is a victory for all students who are deaf or hard of hearing and all those utilizing special education services, and perhaps especially students with disabilities who enter classrooms from outside the United States. Other outcomes of the SCOTUS decision that may impact families at the IEP table are likely to develop as the ADA case and other actions go forward.
Link to SCOTUS decision: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/22pdf/21-887_k53m.pdf
*ASTra: Advocacy Support and Training, a program of Hands & Voices.