The Supreme Court recently delivered an important victory for students with disabilities in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, providing an additional avenue of redress when school districts violate the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) established by the Individuals with Disabilities Education At (IDEA). The Court clarified that students with disabilities seeking monetary damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) do not have to exhaust the administrative process of the IDEA, under which monetary damages are not available.

Miguel Luna Perez, a deaf student, attended Sturgis Public School District in Michigan from ages 9 through 20. Because of his disability, Miguel was entitled to an American Sign Language interpreter for class. However, the aide assigned to Miguel was unqualified and made up signs for Miguel. Sturgis’ failure to provide this reasonable accommodation prevented Miguel from learning and communicating with his peers. Further, Sturgis misrepresented Miguel’s progress to the Perez family, causing them to believe Miguel was on track to graduate on time. However, months before graduation, Sturgis told Miguel that he would not be awarded a diploma. 

The IDEA establishes an administrative process for students with disabilities who have been denied FAPE to get forward-looking relief from school districts. The Perez family initiated this process by filing a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education. The parties settled, with Sturgis agreeing to  place Miguel at the Michigan School for the Deaf and to provide the Perez family with Sign Language instruction. 

The Perez family also sought money damages to be compensated for the harm that Miguel suffered as a result of Sturgis’ failure to provide FAPE. The IDEA provides for injunctive relief, but not for compensatory damages. Accordingly, the Perez family filed a lawsuit in federal district court under the ADA seeking compensatory damages for Sturgis’ failure to provide FAPE. Whether the Perez family could do so depended on the interpretation of § 1415(l) of the IDEA.

Section 1415(l) states that the IDEA shall not restrict the ability to seek “remedies” under other federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities, with one exception: before filing suit under other federal laws seeking “relief” that is also available under the IDEA, the IDEA administrative dispute resolution procedures must be exhausted. Sturgis filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that § 1415(l) of the IDEA barred the Perez family from bringing an ADA claim. The school district asserted that § 1415(l) requires plaintiffs to exhaust administrative process before pursuing a suit under another federal law if that suit seeks relief for the same underlying harm the IDEA exists to address. Thus, the school district’s reading would bar Miguel’s ADA suit because he sought relief under the IDEA and settled before exhausting the IDEA’s § 1415 remedial process. 

The Perez family disagreed with this interpretation, instead arguing that § 1415(l) requires exhaustion of the administrative process only when pursuing a suit under another federal law for remedies IDEA also provides. Accordingly, the exhaustion requirement would not apply to his ADA complaint, which seeks only compensatory damages, because the IDEA does not provide this kind of remedy. 

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Gorsuch adopted the Perez family’s interpretation. The Court first emphasized that the administrative exhaustion requirement of § 1415(l) applies only to suits that “see[k] relief . . . also available under” the IDEA. Then, the Court clarified that this interpretation of § 1415 treats the words “remedies” and “relief” as synonymous, and found this to be justified because the IDEA treats them as synonyms elsewhere in the statute. Accordingly, although the Perez family sought redress for the same underlying harm in both the IDEA settlement and the ADA lawsuit, the § 1415(l) exhaustion requirement did not bar the lawsuit because the damages remedy sought in the lawsuit was not available under the IDEA. Thus, the Supreme Court held that § 1415(l) of the IDEA does not preclude Miguel’s ADA lawsuit. 

The Court’s decision in Perez v. Sturgis strengthens the practical value of the right of students with disabilities to a free and appropriate public education by widening the remedies available to vindicate this right. Students who are denied a free and appropriate public school education, as mandated by the IDEA, can now pursue monetary damages under non-IDEA civil rights laws, in addition to pursuing injunctive relief through IDEA administrative procedures. The power dynamic between students with disabilities and their families and school districts has shifted; students now affirmatively hold the tools necessary to remedy violations of their educational rights.