The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of a deaf student in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, 143 S. Ct. 81 (U.S. 2022), where the Court held that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) exhaustion requirement does not preclude claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) for money damages because the relief sought under the ADA is not one that is available under the IDEA.

Michigan’s Sturgis Public School District was alleged to have provided the student with unqualified interpreters and misrepresented his educational progress, which ultimately led to the district not permitting him to graduate. The student filed a due process complaint against the school, alleging denial of a free and appropriate public education as required by the IDEA. The student and school district settled the IDEA claims before going through due process, but the family then went to federal court under the ADA to seek money damages, which are not available under the IDEA.

Sturgis Public Schools sought to dismiss the case, arguing that IDEA regulations required the student to first exhaust IDEA’s administrative procedures. The district court agreed and dismissed the student’s lawsuit, and the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling.

Section 1415(l) of the IDEA provides that “‘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.” The regulations also provide that “except 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.” Subsections (f) and (g) provide for the right of a due process hearing and appeal to the state education agency.

The student argued that Section 1415(l) would require him to go through the due process procedures required under subsections (f) and (g) only if he filed a claim under a different law that provided for remedies that the IDEA also provides. The student argued that because he sought money damages not available under the IDEA, he was not required to file for due process for his ADA claim.

On the other hand, Sturgis Public Schools argued that Section 1415(l) required the student to file for due process required under subsections (f) and (g) because he sought relief for the same underlying harm the IDEA exists to address. Sturgis Public Schools therefore argued that Section 1415(l) precluded the student’s claims because the IDEA provides relief for a failure to provide a free and appropriate public education claim. Sturgis Public Schools also cited to Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, where the Supreme Court held that Section 1415(l)’s exhaustion requirement did not apply unless the plaintiff sought relief for the denial of a free and appropriate public education because that was the only relief due process could provide. The Supreme Court noted that the present case presents a similar, but different question, which is whether a claim premised on a denial of a free and appropriate public education could still proceed without filing for due process if the remedy the plaintiff seeks is not available under the IDEA.

The Supreme Court ultimately held that IDEA’s exhaustion requirement did not preclude the student from seeking money damages under the ADA because the IDEA does not provide for money damages. The Court reversed the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals judgment and remanded for further proceedings.

This case makes clear that school districts should be aware that a claim for money damages under the ADA can be brought by a student even if that student did not go through due process. If you have questions about this case or anything special education related, please contact the authors of this post or any Franczek attorney.

Join Franczek attorneys Kaitlin Atlas and Jared Costanzo for a webinar on April 20, 2023, at 12:00pm discussing recent amendments to the Part 226 special education regulations.