To Exhaust, or Not to Exhaust, That Is the Question

03.24.2023

To exhaust, or not to exhaust? That is the question the United States Supreme Court recently answered in Luna Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Sch., No. 21-887 (U.S. Mar. 21, 2023), when it held that an Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) lawsuit seeking “compensatory damages” (aka money damages) is not subject to IDEA’s exhaustion requirement.

Background of Luna Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Sch.

This case arose out of a Michigan school district’s alleged failure to provide a qualified aide to a high school student (“Student”), who is deaf. The school district provided an aide to the Student in order to translate classroom instruction, but Student argued his aides were absent for hours from the classroom and were otherwise unqualified to translate the instruction into sign language. The lawsuit also alleged that the school district inflated Student’s grades and classroom progress, and misrepresented that he was on track to graduate from high school.

After learning that the school district refused to award Student a diploma during Student’s senior year of high school, Student’s family filed a due process complaint with his state’s department of education. Specifically, they alleged that the school district denied Student a free and appropriate education under the IDEA and had failed its duties under other laws, including the ADA. Having no jurisdiction over the ADA, that claim was dismissed by the administrative law judge in a similar fashion to the administrative process here in California. The parties settled Student’s claims before any administrative due process hearing could take place, again, similar to widespread practice in California. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the school district agreed to pay for “all the forward-looking equitable relief he sought,” including for Student’s attendance at a specialized school for the deaf.

A few months later, Student brought suit against his Michigan school district, this time in federal court, and alleged a violation of the ADA. Through his ADA lawsuit, Student sought compensatory damages flowing from the school district’s violations of the ADA while Student attended Sturgis schools. The school district filed a motion to dismiss Student’s complaint, and alleged that a provision in the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. §1415(l), barred Student from bringing his ADA claim without first exhausting all of the IDEA’s administrative due process procedures, foremost, completing a due process hearing. The federal district court in Michigan and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, bound by legal precedent, agreed with the school district and dismissed Student’s ADA claims.

But What Did the Supreme Court Say?

When reviewing the lower courts’ decisions, the Supreme Court said “the question we face in this case concerns the extent to which children with disabilities must exhaust administrative procedures under the IDEA before seeking relief under other federal antidiscrimination statutes, such as the [ADA].”

The Supreme Court’s holding turned on the interpretation of 20 U.S.C. §1415(l), and how the plain language of the statute would be interpreted by an ordinary reader (a person like you and me). Section §1415(l) provides:

Nothing in [the IDEA] shall be construed to restrict or limit the rights, procedures, and remedies available under … the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 … or other Federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities, except that before the filing of a civil action under such laws seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA], the [IDEA’s administrative procedures] shall be exhausted to the same extent as would be required had the action been brought under [the IDEA]. (Emphasis added)

Student argued Section §1415(l) did not bar his ADA claim because he was not seeking a remedy available to parties under the IDEA. Instead, Student was seeking compensatory (money) damages, which legally cannot be awarded to parties prevailing on an IDEA claim. In contrast, the school district cited Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (a case which we discussed in a prior blog here) and argued §1415(l) required exhaustion because Student sought relief for the same underlying harm stemming from his denial of a free and appropriate public education claims.

The Supreme Court found Student’s argument more persuasive, and determined the words remedies and relief as used in Section §1415(l) are synonymous. That is, because the IDEA cannot supply the relief (e.g., compensatory damages) Student seeks, exhaustion of the administrative due process procedures was not required. The Supreme Court noted this interpretation is consistent with its analysis in Fry. The Supreme Court went on to explain that “a plaintiff who files an ADA action seeking both damages and the sort of equitable relief IDEA provides may find his request for equitable relief barred or deferred if he has yet to exhaust §1415(f) and (g)” (i.e., IDEA’s administrative due process procedures).

Based on this interpretation regarding Section §1415(l), the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded the case so that Student could proceed with his ADA lawsuit.

Takeaways

When a student with a disability makes a request for an accommodation or service, local educational agencies (“LEA”) should remember that equal access and equal opportunity issues pursuant to other laws, like the ADA, are in play. A student’s requests might need to be addressed through any available ADA processes in addition to an IEP team meeting. LEAs should analyze the request through the lenses of the IDEA and the ADA, not to mention Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, to determine if the request should be granted or denied. Different laws may require different processes to properly address the request(s).

Additionally, when engaged in settlement discussions regarding a pending due process matter or other dispute resolution process, it is strongly encouraged to consult with legal counsel regarding settlement agreement wording in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Finally, our Firm will be conducting a one hour webinar on May 1, 2023, regarding the case and its implications for LEAs for the foreseeable future.

If you have any questions regarding this Alert, you can contact the authors or your preferred attorney at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo.

This AALRR publication is intended for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon in reaching a conclusion in a particular area of law. Applicability of the legal principles discussed may differ substantially in individual situations. Receipt of this or any other AALRR presentation does not create an attorney-client relationship. The Firm is not responsible for inadvertent errors that may occur in the publishing process. 

© 2023 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo

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