On March 21, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing parents to seek financial damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) without first participating in a due process hearing. This ruling may have important implications for school districts facing legal challenges from parents of students with disabilities. See 21-887 Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools.
The Perez family filed a due process complaint alleging that their school district violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Specifically, the family alleged that their son, Miguel Perez, was deaf but did not receive appropriate educational services for his disability. This due process complaint did not move forward to hearing; instead, it was resolved after the school district settled with the family and agreed to fund additional educational services for Miguel.
The Perez family, however, sued the school district in federal court under the ADA, a different but related law that permits damages for disability claims. Essentially, the Perez family asked for money – not compensatory education – to remedy the alleged ADA violations. The trial court explained that claims alleging educational deprivation must first move through the IDEA’s due process complaint requirements, regardless of whether parents sue under the IDEA or ADA. Because the Perez family settled their claims and did not go through the IDEA’s hearing process, the trial court dismissed their lawsuit. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, but the family appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed.
The Supreme Court held that going through the IDEA’s administrative due process and hearing procedures is required only when parents seek educational relief, such as compensatory education, for their child. When the remedy sought is unavailable under the IDEA (i.e., money damages) then IDEA procedures, such as due process complaints and hearings, are not required. Thus, the Perez family, who sued under the ADA and requested damages, could move forward with their lawsuit, even though they never participated in the IDEA hearing process.
Parents can now go directly to court and avoid IDEA’s hearing procedures, as long as they seek relief that the IDEA cannot provide, such as money. The full implications of this decision are uncertain, but school districts may likely see an uptick in ADA lawsuits filed by parents of students with disabilities. To stem the tide of this litigation, school districts should ensure that future settlement agreements related to educational services include a waiver of the right to sue under the ADA and Section 504. These procedural and strategic considerations can be complex, and we encourage you to reach out with any questions or concerns about your district’s specific circumstances.
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Weston Hurd LLP attorneys regularly assist school districts in all aspects of school law. For further information about this advisory, please contact Weston Hurd partner Miriam Fair (email@example.com) or any of the education law attorneys.