SCOTUS Affirms Students’ Right to Sue for Money Damages in Disability Discrimination Cases Without First Exhausting Administrative Remedies

April 3, 2023
Anna E. Bullock, Susan Stone and Kristina Supler
Deaf Student using sign language

On March 21, 2023, the Supreme Court delivered a rare unanimous opinion in Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, et al. affirming the rights of grade school students alleging disability discrimination to immediately sue for damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The opinion permits the filing of disability discrimination lawsuits without first requiring exhaustion of available administrative remedies through state agencies pursuant to the exhaustion requirements mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Students May Seek Redress Under the ADA Without Exhaustion of IDEA Remedies

When disabled grade school students face discrimination by a public school, they may select among several legal vehicles to access various remedies, including litigation and administrative recourse. These remedies may be available through one (or a combination of) the following federal statutes: the ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and/or the IDEA. The IDEA requires students to first exhaust available state agency processes to attempt to resolve issues involving alleged discrimination before filing litigation. Following the Supreme Court’s opinion in Luna Perez, students may seek redress under the ADA without exhaustion of IDEA remedies.

The Luna Perez Case

The Luna Perez case involved Miguel Luna Perez, a 27-year-old deaf man, who sued his Michigan school district under the ADA for money damages incurred in connection with permanent communication deficits he has suffered due to his school’s failure to provide special instruction, thereby preventing his acquisition of language at a critical time in his development.  The IDEA secures disabled public school students’ rights to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (commonly abbreviated FAPE). Under IDEA, school districts must provide disabled students with specially designed instruction, at public expense, in order to provide educational services and opportunities on an equivalent level to their abled peers. These specially designed education plans are known as “Individualized Education Plans” or “IEPs.” The ADA similarly protects students’ equal access to all public accommodations, including but not limited to public education, by prohibiting discrimination against students on the basis of students’ actual or perceived disability status.

Luna Perez alleged that he had been passed from grade-to-grade without ever learning to communicate using American Sign Language and without ever learning to read or write. Instead of proper instruction supportive of his need for disability services, Luna Perez alleged he was assigned an aide who did not know any formal sign language at all. Together with his aide, Luna Perez only acquired a signing communication system that was unique to him. As such, his signed communications were unintelligible to anyone who was not already personally familiar with him. Luna Perez also alleged that the district assigned him inflated grades and fraudulently listed him on the honor roll of his class for years despite his inability to read, write, and effectively communicate. Luna Perez’s family learned just months before his anticipated high school graduation that Luna Perez would not be eligible for a diploma, but instead would receive a “certificate of completion.

Moving Forward

The Supreme Court’s opinion heralds a victory for students who suffer compensatory damages caused by school districts’ failure to provide appropriate disability services under IDEA. Going forward, students need not wait for investigation and adjudication of disability discrimination complaints through state agencies before they may seek redress in court under the ADA.

The attorneys in KJK’s Student and Athlete Defense practice group are closely monitoring developments in this area of the law. For more information, or to discuss further, please contact KJK’s S&AD attorneys.