Suing Schools for Monetary Damages Under the ADA Just Got Less Exhausting

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides schools and parents of students with disabilities administrative procedures to address special education concerns (e.g., due process hearings and state complaints). Generally, parents and students seeking relief available under the IDEA must first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures before filing a federal lawsuit. In a case originating in Michigan, the U.S. Supreme Court recently clarified that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement does not preclude an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuit when the relief sought is not available under the IDEA. Perez v Sturgis Pub Schs, Docket No. 21-887 (2023).

Miguel Perez, who is deaf, attended the school from ages 9 - 20. The school allegedly provided Perez with unqualified interpreters and misrepresented his educational progress. Upon learning that the school would not permit Perez to graduate with a regular diploma, Perez and his parents filed a due process complaint with MDE, alleging that the school failed to provide Perez a free appropriate public education. In settling the complaint, the school committed to providing Perez certain educational services, among other things.

Perez then sued the school in federal district court under the ADA, seeking compensatory damages. The district court dismissed the suit, finding that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement barred Perez from bringing the ADA claim. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the district court.

Reversing the appellate court’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement did not preclude Perez’s ADA lawsuit because the IDEA does not restrict persons from seeking remedies under the ADA or other laws protecting the rights of individuals with disabilities. But, if the relief sought is available under the IDEA, then the individual must first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative procedures, including a due process hearing. The Supreme Court clarified that the IDEA requires exhaustion of the IDEA’s administrative procedures only to the extent that the plaintiff pursues a suit under another federal law for relief that the IDEA also provides. Here, Perez sought compensatory damages, relief which is not available under the IDEA. Therefore, the Court held that Perez was not required to exhaust IDEA’s administrative requirements before bringing his ADA claim.