The US Supreme Court seemed ready to rule for a deaf student who’s seeking to sue a Michigan public school district for disability discrimination.
At the heart of the case argued on Wednesday are questions about whether state administrative proceedings have to be exhausted before students or parents can seek relief in federal court even if the proceedings would be futile or fail to provide the relief sought.
Justice Neil Gorsuch said ”most of the courts of appeals have gravitated around a rule” that a futility exception to the exhaustion requirement does exist. “What’s wrong with that rule?” he asked.
Miguel Perez alleges Sturgis Public Schools and the school board violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it failed to provide him a qualified sign language interpreter. He sued the school for money damages under the ADA, but the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss his case.
The appeals court said Perez hadn’t exhausted the state administrative proceedings available to him under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees kids with special needs a public education that’s designed to meet their individual needs. The appeals court also held Perez’s decision to settle his IDEA claims barred him from bringing a similar case against the school.
Perez argues that Sixth Circuit’s decision was wrong because his ADA claim had already been dismissed from the IDEA administrative proceedings. Additionally, he argued money damages aren’t a remedy the IDEA awards.
During the 90-minute arguments, Justice Clarence Thomas said he was having difficulty seeing where the ADA fits in with the IDEA. He said it’s an entirely different remedy being sought under the ADA.
“Normally, you would think of exhaustion as being similar. The relief would be similar to the exhausted claims,” Thomas said. “This seems to be an entirely different statute, so I don’t understand even the use of the term ‘exhaustion’ here.”
But Skadden’s Shay Dvoretzky, who argued on behalf of the school district, said it all comes down to how the court interprets relief under the IDEA. He argued the better reading is that relief means redress from harm because the IDEA provides a right to a public education not a specific remedy.
Perez was in the courtroom Wednesday with four interpreters—two certified hearing interpreters and two certified deaf interpreters—to translate the proceedings. Latham & Watkins LLP, which represented Perez, said certified deaf interpreters are used to help break down concepts when the consumer’s communication mode is unique.
Latham’s Roman Martinez, who argued the case for Perez, said the school’s position forces parents who are desperate to fix their child’s education to give up their ADA rights by accepting a settlement in their IDEA proceedings
“That just can’t be right,” he said.
Justice Elena Kagan wanted to know what more Perez should have done. She quoted Martinez, who opened the arguments by saying his client had done everything right by doing everything the IDEA wanted him to do.
“It’s hard for me to see how that’s not true,” Kagan said.
Dvoretzky argued the whole point of the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement is to stop people from circumventing the IDEA and taking their claims straight to federal court.
But Justice Amy Coney Barrett reiterated the federal government’s argument that there’s a futility exception in most circuit courts and the sky hasn’t fallen as a result.
The case comes less than a year after the Supreme Court ruled in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller that “emotional distress damages are not recoverable” under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Sturgis Public Schools had argued in briefs that the remedies available under the Rehabilitation Act are coextensive with the ADA and therefore Perez can’t recover damages for emotional distress. That precedent was only briefly discussed during the oral arguments.
Kagan asked the government, which argued in support of Perez, if the solicitor general has given any thought to the kinds of compensatory relief available after Cummings.
Anthony Yang, an assistant to the solicitor general, said the government is not taking a position in this case on whether Cummings forecloses ADA relief for emotional damages.
The case is Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, U.S., No. 21-887, arguments 1/18/23.
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