SCOTUS could change the rights of students with disabilities to sue for damages
Linda Jacobson | January 19, 2023
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday considered whether students with disabilities can seek financial relief under a federal law prohibiting discrimination even if they’ve already settled a case under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Comments and questions from the justices seemed to lean toward yes.
“All she wants is to be compensated for what she says occurred to her during the period of her education,” Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said, offering a hypothetical example of a senior who wants to drop out. “Does she have to sit in front of a hearing officer and talk about ways in which her education could be changed?”
While the arguments in the case are complex, they come down to whether Congress meant for students to give up their rights under IDEA — which does not provide monetary damages — in order to bring a lawsuit seeking a financial award under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Advocates for students with disabilities argue that was never the intention of the law, while those representing school districts are concerned about the potential for “dual-track litigation” under both IDEA and ADA.
“That could be extremely expensive for districts,” said Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director for AASA, the School Superintendents Association. A ruling in favor of the plaintiff, she added, “has the potential to shift parents’ and districts’ focus to money rather than educational needs.”
The case, Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, focuses on a deaf immigrant from Mexico, now 27, who entered the Michigan district in 2004, when he was 9. The district assigned Miguel Perez to an aide who didn’t know American Sign Language and invented hand signals to communicate with him.
“This shameful conduct permanently stunted Miguel’s ability to communicate with the outside world,” said his attorney Roman Martinez.
The family sued and agreed to a settlement under IDEA that allowed Perez to attend Michigan School for the Deaf. But his parents also sought monetary damages for emotional distress and lost income under ADA.
Shay Dvoretzky, representing the school district, said Congress didn’t want families to do an end run around the administrative process outlined in special education law — such as attending a resolution conference and filing a formal complaint — in order to seek damages.
“Congress carefully crafted those procedures, and it wanted parents and school districts to go through them” in order to ensure the student receives appropriate services, he said.
But Justice Elena Kagan, one of the liberals on the court, said it’s unlikely families would pass up services for a child under IDEA in order to reserve their right to sue.
“It’s the parents that have the greater incentive to get the education fixed for their child,” she said.
‘Cannot remedy the harm’
Rebecca Spar, an attorney with the New Jersey-based Education Law Center, who has argued special education cases, said a key issue is Perez’s age. His parents brought the case after the district told him he would be eligible only for a certificate of completion, not a diploma.
If a child is denied services at a young age, the educational relief provided through IDEA can make a real difference in the child’s future, she said. But the options for older students are far more limited.
“When you get older, there are all kinds of complications,” she said. ”Then you cannot remedy the harm.”
Kagan and Dvoretzky also exchanged words over the meaning of relief. Dvoretzky suggested it doesn’t necessarily mean money and that it was sufficient for the district to address Perez’s loss of an appropriate education by getting him into the school for the deaf.
“It’s … a situation where you may not get what you ask for, but you get what you need,” he said.
But Kagan said it’s clear what the family is seeking.
“It’s relief in the normal sense: What did you get? How much money was put on the table?” she said.
If the court rules for Perez, it’s possible districts would include language in any IDEA settlement that parents are giving up their rights to sue under other laws.
“That would close the door for ADA relief,” Pudelski said.
Martinez said he can’t predict whether the court will allow Perez’s ADA lawsuit to move forward, but the decision has “important implications not only for Miguel, but for parents and students across the country.”