US Supreme Court Issues Landmark Special Education Ruling
On March 2, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Perez v Sturgis Public Schools, 598 U.S. ___(2023). This is a long awaited decision answering the question whether public schools can be held liable for compensatory damages, not just be required to provide compensatory education and other educational services, where there has been a denial of FAPE. Traditionally, if the claims brought by parents had any IDEA implications, parents were required to exhaust the administrative due process requirements of IDEA and were limited to the remedies offered by that statute such as compensatory education, attorneys fees, reimbursement of tuition, evaluation costs, related services costs and placement in an alternative setting. This meant that parents had to file an administrative due process complaint and go through the due process procedures first. Monetary damages are not available under the IDEA, see 20 U.S.C. Section 1415(f), (g) and (l).
In the Perez case, prior to the Student’s graduation from his Michigan high school, the school district advised that the student would not meet graduation requirements despite progress reporting that suggested that he would graduate on time. Parents first filed a complaint at the state level under IDEA for denial of FAPE for their deaf child. That case was resolved through a settlement agreement prior to an administrative hearing including the payment of tuition for the student to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf.
Thereafter, the Student and his parents filed a complaint in federal District Court under the ADA seeking monetary damages for violation of the ADA’s provisions during the time when the Student attended the public school. The Americans With Disabilities Act does permit a plaintiff to recover monetary damages when his/her rights are violated and does not require exhaustion of administrative remedies.
The federal District Court and the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case holding that IDEA’s exhaustion requirement governs. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide the case and the only issue that was decided was that a plaintiff/parent/student may bring a special education due process hearing seeking the type of damages permitted under IDEA while concurrently filing a federal court complaint under the ADA requesting monetary damages for past violations of the ADA. The Court did not rule on any of the facts of the case because they were not before it; it was strictly a procedural issue regarding whether the ADA complaint should have been dismissed because the facts of the case revolved around whether a student received FAPE.
It is important to note that a violation of IDEA is, by its very nature, a violation of the ADA. Because of the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, school districts may be facing concurrent litigation and even a decision under the ADA by a Court, not administrative tribunal that requires presentation of the same or similar evidence as that presented to a due process hearing officer.
In a nutshell, the Court found that IDEA requires exhaustion of administrative procedures relating only to the type of damages that IDEA permits; compensatory education, tuition reimbursement, attorneys fees, etc. IDEA does not include within its remedies monetary damages for past violations of the rights guaranteed by the ADA and thus, exhaustion of a claim for this type of damages is not required.
The Court remanded the case to the District Court to permit the lawsuit under the ADA to proceed. Thus, what damages the plaintiffs will recover, if any, is a case for another day.
The Education Law Practice Group at Eastburn and Gray, P.C. is prepared to answer questions regarding this significant development in the law.