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On March 21, 2023, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, 143 S. Ct. 859 (2023) that a student with a disability does not have to exhaust the administrative due process procedures of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) before filing a lawsuit seeking compensatory damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or other federal anti-discrimination laws.  In reversing the lower court decisions, the Court held that the statutory language of the IDEA expressly requires exhaustion through the due process hearing process for lawsuits brought under other federal laws that seek relief that is available under the IDEA, but does not require exhaustion for lawsuits brought under other federal laws that seek relief that is not available under the IDEA, such as compensatory damages. The Court further explained that its decision was consistent with its earlier ruling in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 580 U.S. 154 (2017), in which the Court held that students may proceed with lawsuits without exhausting the IDEA administrative proceedings if the lawsuit does not seek relief for claims that essentially allege a denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE).  The Court in Perez explained that its holding aligns with the Fry decision, because a student does not have to exhaust administrative due process remedies when the IDEA “cannot supply what he seeks.”  See Perez, slip op. at 6.

The Underlying Administrative IDEA Complaint

Mr. Perez, who is deaf and attended the Sturgis Public Schools from ages 9 through 20, and his family filed a due process complaint against the Sturgis Public Schools, alleging a failure to provide Mr. Perez with FAPE.  Mr. Perez and his family alleged that the school district failed to provide him with appropriate educational services and supports, such as sign language and an appropriately trained aide.  The due process complaint also alleged violations of the Rehabilitation Act, ADA and state anti-discrimination laws.  The parties entered into a settlement agreement that resolved the IDEA claims.  

The ADA and State Anti-Discrimination Lawsuit

After entering into the settlement agreement to resolve the IDEA due process complaint, Mr. Perez filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging violations of the ADA and state anti-discrimination laws and sought compensatory damages.  Mr. Perez alleged that the school district discriminated against him by not providing him with the resources needed for him to participate and benefit from classroom instruction.  The school district sought to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis that the plaintiffs were required to exhaust the IDEA administrative process and failed to do so.  The lower courts dismissed the lawsuit.  The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Mr. Perez could not proceed on the ADA and other legal claims because the lawsuit sought relief for alleged harm, specifically the denial of FAPE, that is available under the IDEA.  Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Schs., 3 F.4th 236 (6th Cir. 2021). The Sixth Circuit held that the statutory language establishing exhaustion under the IDEA (providing that exhaustion through administrative procedures is required when the action is “seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA]”) refers to “the events, condition, or consequences of which the person complains, not necessarily relief of the kind the person prefers.”  Id. at 241 (citing McMillen v. New Candy Indep. Sch. Dist., 939 F.3d 640, 648 (5th Cir. 2019)).

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court reversed the Sixth Circuit decision, allowing Mr. Perez’s lawsuit to proceed without exhausting the IDEA’s administrative procedures.  The Court explained that “relief” in the exhaustion requirement is synonymous with “remedy,” so that the exhaustion requirement does not apply “if the remedy a plaintiff seeks in not one IDEA provides.”  See Perez, 143 S. Ct. 859, slip op. at 6. The Court concluded that Mr. Perez’s lawsuit was seeking compensatory damages that are not available under the IDEA.  Consequently, the Court held that the exhaustion requirement does not apply to his lawsuit.

Importantly, although the Court in Perez confirmed that plaintiffs do not need to exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures when seeking damages, the standard for succeeding on a claim for damages under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of the ADA remains unchanged.  Specifically, in order to recover damages under those laws, plaintiffs generally must prove that the school district’s (or other local governmental entity’s) actions were “deliberately indifferent” to the rights of the plaintiff afforded under those laws.  On the other hand, the Perez case also confirms that parents must still exhaust the IDEA’s administrative remedies when seeking equitable relief for FAPE violations.  Such equitable relief includes remedies such as compensatory education and tuition reimbursement. 

Practical Considerations for School Districts

  • Be responsive to parent concerns and student needs.
  • Continue to follow the procedures of the IDEA.
  • Continue to review the substantive appropriateness of IEPs.
  • Review and, as appropriate, address any concerns regarding access to, or benefit from, educational opportunities.
  • Remind staff that IDEA issues also implicate Section 504 and the ADA, and the Section 504/ADA Coordinator should be involved in responding to and addressing allegations of disability-based discrimination.

If you have any questions about this alert, please feel free to contact any member of the School Law Practice Group