School Law Alerts

U.S. Supreme Court’s latest IDEA ruling clarifies Act’s exhaustion requirements; Could mean more frequent litigation for school districts

Posted by Daniel R. Shisler | Jul 16, 2023 | 0 Comments

The Supreme Court of the United States issued a consequential special education decision during its March session that may lead to school districts experiencing more frequent litigation.  In Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, the Court held that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act's (IDEA) requirement for plaintiffs to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit in court does not apply where plaintiffs seek remedies not otherwise available under the IDEA.  598 U.S. ___ (2023).

In this case, the plaintiff, Perez, was a deaf student who attended a public school district in Michigan.  Perez alleged that the district did not provide adequate sign language translation through the years, which ultimately resulted in his failure to graduate.  Consequently, Perez filed an administrative complaint with the Michigan Department of Education (MDE).  Critically, Perez and the school district reached a settlement to provide equitable educational relief before MDE held an administrative hearing.  However, after settling the administrative complaint, Perez filed a lawsuit against the school district under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) seeking compensatory money damages.

The school district sought dismissal of Perez's lawsuit, arguing that the IDEA's exhaustion requirement had not been observed because MDE had not heard Perez's due process claim.  Both the Michigan district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the school district and ruled that Perez's ADA claim was barred due to his failure to exhaust administrative remedies, as required by the IDEA at 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l).  However, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that Perez's claim for compensatory damages under the ADA could proceed because compensatory damages are a remedy not available under the IDEA.  Thus, where a remedy is not available under the IDEA, a plaintiff need not exhaust administrative procedures prior to initiating a lawsuit.

This decision presents quite a significant development for school districts.  Previously, districts could routinely stave off litigation by demonstrating a plaintiff's failure to exhaust administrative remedies.  Now, following Perez, districts may face increased exposure to lawsuits for remedies beyond what is available in the IDEA.  To be clear, Perez has not substantively expanded a plaintiff's potential remedies.  However, the decision has lessened procedural rigidity for plaintiffs, giving them the ability to “fast track” a lawsuit under certain circumstances.  Further, it is now possible that plaintiffs may strategically file lawsuits while administrative complaints are pending to increase the pressure on school districts in hopes of achieving settlement.

With these long-standing procedural roadblocks no longer in place, districts should emphasize prevention strategies to minimize the risk of violating the IDEA, ADA, and other laws, and to hopefully lessen the frequency of litigation.  After Perez, it is important to involve legal counsel as early as possible when conflicts do arise. 

About the Author

Daniel R. Shisler

Daniel Shisler's practice is devoted to advising boards of education on matters including board policy formation and compliance, general labor and employment/ personnel issues, employment discrimination, workers compensation, unemployment compensation, student/pupil personnel legal issues, residency issues, board policy, and ethics/conflict of interest issues. Daniel has experience representing boards of education in litigation in both state and federal courts regarding employment discrimination, employee discipline, termination and nonrenewal, statutory immunity issues, and student disciplinary appeals.


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