On March 21, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools that a special education student and his parents could pursue their claims for money damages under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504) against a public school district without first having to exhaust their administrative remedies under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). “Administrative exhaustion” means that a petitioner has to first develop a factual record of their claims at an evidentiary administrative hearing before they can advance to a court of law or pursue monetary relief or an award of attorneys’ fees.
For instance, under the IDEA, when parents disagree with the school regarding any aspect of a disabled student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), the parents are required to “exhaust” their administrative remedies under the IDEA by following their state’s due process resolution procedures. Often times, this entails lengthy and expensive litigation in multiple levels of adjudication commencing first with an informal resolution process with the school and escalating to a formal hearing by an administrative agency followed by appellate review in federal district court. Claims arising under the IDEA also require proof that the school denied the student a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE). Relief available for violations under the IDEA is limited to an award of compensatory education, not monetary damages.
By contrast, the ADA and Section 504, statutes which prohibit discriminatory policies, practices and physical barriers that prevent disabled individuals from accessing places of public accommodation on the basis of their disability, allow for claims of monetary damages. For many years though, courts have required disabled students to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA before allowing petitioners to pursue their money damage under the ADA and Section 504, even if the dispute did not involve the right to receive a FAPE.
The 2017 U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision, Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, weakened the bar against disabled students’ pursuit of the their ADA and Section 504 claims without administrative exhaustion when the Court upheld a disabled student’s right to bring a service animal to school and held that it was erroneous for a public school district to require a family to exhaust all legal remedies under the IDEA when, in the absence of a FAPE claim, a child’s right to her service animal is fully supported under the ADA and Section 504.
The Fry case did not, however, address a circumstance where there was a concurrent dispute involving the student’s right to receive FAPE under the IDEA and discrimination claims arising under the ADA and Section 504. The latest Supreme Court decision in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools finally decides this issue that has divided courts for decades. In Perez, the student is deaf and had received special education services from the school district from age 9 through 20 years. A few months before the student was supposed to graduate, the school district advised that he was not eligible because the sign language services that were supposed to be provided were not provided all of those years with any consistency or accuracy. The parents and student sued under the IDEA, ADA and Section 504, but the ADA and Section 504 claims were dismissed by the hearing officer for lack of jurisdiction. The IDEA claim was settled with the school and the claim dismissed. Thereafter, the student and his parents sued the school under the ADA and Section 504 in the federal district court for discrimination, but their case was dismissed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies.
Significantly, in Perez, the U.S. Supreme Court held that ADA and Section 504 seeking remedies that are not available under the IDEA, such as compensatory damages, no longer have to exhaust their claims through the IDEA administrative process before going to court on their ADA and Section 504 claims for money damages, even if the claims are based on a denial of a FAPE. Accordingly, the Court held that the Perez family could pursue their ADA and Section 504 claims for damages against the school district.