In its recent unanimous ruling in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools et al, the Supreme Court changed education law. Now, students and their guardians can more easily bring a lawsuit against local school boards and other local education agencies for compensatory damages without going through the administrative hearings that are usually needed in such situations.
The Facts Behind Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools
According to Education Week, Miguel Luna Perez attended schools in Sturgis Public School District (Sturgis) in Michigan from age 9 through age 20. Perez is deaf, and Sturgis provided him with aides (interpreters) who were supposed to translate his classroom material into sign language.
However, these personal aides were not skilled in sign language (one of the interpreters, in fact, was even attempting to teach herself sign language) or were chronically absent from the classroom for hours. As a result, Perez fell behind his schoolmates.
He did, however, get passing grades from his teachers so that he could move from one grade to another, which gave Perez and his family the impression that he was en route to graduation. But later, they were notified that Perez would not be awarded a diploma, mere months before his graduation.
Perez’s family was unaware of his lack of education until they heard that their son would not get a diploma. At that point, the family turned to the U.S. Department of Education’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). They filed an administrative complaint with the Michigan Department of Education, saying that Sturgis had not provided their son with a “free and appropriate public education” as IDEA requires.
According to IDEA, a student must participate in an administrative hearing to resolve this type of problem. Later, Sturgis and the Perez family came to an agreement. Sturgis would pay for future educational services that would be given to Perez at the Michigan School for the Deaf, so that he could get the necessary education and graduate with a high school diploma.
After the administrative hearing was completed and the family’s demand for completing Perez’s education was satisfied, Sturgis felt that the case was closed. But later, Perez’s family decided to try a new avenue. They filed a lawsuit in federal court for compensatory damages using the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Sturgis asked for the case to be dismissed since Perez’s parents had not exhausted all of the options for administrative hearings through IDEA. The lower courts accepted this position, but the case then went to the Supreme Court.
The argument used by Perez stated that Sturgis’ interpretation of IDEA was incorrect, since IDEA does not have the authority to issue relief of the kind Perez’s family requested. Sturgis’ lawyers argued that since the underlying harm to Perez was supposed to be dealt with under IDEA, the lawsuit should first be handled in administrative hearings. In other words, Sturgis promoted the argument that this type of damage cannot be compensated.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Perez. Justice Gorsuch, who delivered the unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court, explained that the focus of this case should be on the remedy sought by Perez and his family.
According to Education Week, Roman Martinez, the attorney representing Perez, said in a written statement that “the court’s ruling vindicates the rights of students with disabilities to obtain full relief when they suffer discrimination. Miguel and his family look forward to pursuing their legal claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The Effects of Perez on Education Law
The Supreme Court’s decision in Sturgis changes education law by giving parents more leverage in their negotiations with school districts. However, there is also another side to this change in education law.
By opening up this avenue for damages, more lawyers may venture into education law. As a result, IDEA proceedings could become more complex, time-consuming and costly.
For parents, the Supreme Court’s ruling will make it easier to find an attorney who will represent them. The decision in this case could provide lawyers with an incentive to provide representation for a smaller retainer or perhaps with no retainer at all, with the anticipation that awarded damages will cover legal expenses.
For families with children who need special education services and have limited funds to retain legal counsel, this ruling may change their relationship with local school boards.
For school districts, this ruling means that their budgets will need to include a more robust legal expenses fund since there might be a visible increase in litigation. Also, due process hearings might become more cumbersome and lengthy in some districts.
Education law – and special education law – is an area that deals with a state’s interaction with some of society’s most vulnerable individuals. The cost of litigation has made lengthy legal processes cost-prohibitive to many families. However, it also appears likely that taxpayers will be a part of bearing the increased financial burden caused by this change in education law.