Supreme Court Unanimously Sides With Student In Special Ed Case

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The U.S. Supreme Court determined that Miguel Luna Perez, who is deaf, can pursue claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act despite already reaching a settlement under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act with the Sturgis Public Schools. (Thinkstock)

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of a student with a disability in a case with significant implications for families and schools entangled in special education disputes.

In an opinion issued Tuesday, the high court sided with Miguel Luna Perez, a deaf student who sued the Sturgis Public Schools in Michigan for failing to provide him a qualified sign language interpreter for 12 years.

Perez’s family was led to believe that he was on track to receive a high school diploma, but found out just months before graduation that he would be getting a certificate of completion instead.

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The family reached a settlement with the school district to resolve claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but subsequently sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act seeking monetary damages. A lower court ruled against Perez in the ADA case indicating that because the family accepted the IDEA settlement, they did not fully exhaust all options under IDEA.

With the ruling this week, however, the Supreme Court reversed that decision. The justices unanimously determined that since compensatory damages are not available under IDEA, Perez is entitled to pursue such a claim under the ADA.

IDEA’s “administrative exhaustion requirement applies only to suits that ‘see(k) relief … also available under’ IDEA,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in an eight-page opinion for the court. “And that condition simply is not met in situations like ours, where a plaintiff brings a suit under another federal law for compensatory damages — a form of relief everyone agrees IDEA does not provide.”

Gorsuch noted in the ruling that since lower courts have differed on this issue, the decision “holds consequences not just for Mr. Perez but for a great many children with disabilities and their parents.”

Lawyers for Perez had warned that a ruling in favor of the school district would tie the hands of students with disabilities and their families by essentially requiring them to turn down even the best IDEA settlements in order to maintain their ability to seek claims under other laws.

“Miguel Perez is just one of millions of students with disabilities who face a multitude of barriers in getting the supports and services they need to thrive in school and to build the future they desire,” said Shira Wakschlag, senior director of legal advocacy and general counsel at The Arc, one of several disability groups that filed amicus briefs supporting Perez. “Consistent with the language of the ADA and IDEA, today’s unanimous decision in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools removes unnecessary burdens from families seeking relief and helps ensure that students with disabilities and their parents are able to pursue every avenue of justice available to them when their civil rights are violated.”

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