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SCOTUS: Public School Children with Disabilities Can Get Compensatory Damages

Can public school children with disabilities sue their schools for violations of the federal antidiscrimination statutes and collect compensatory damages before exhausting their administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA")? In a unanimous decision issued on March 21, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court answered in the affirmative.

Miguel Perez, a deaf student at Sturgis Public School District—a small district in southwest Michigan—complained that his assigned aides were unqualified or absent from the classroom. Perez and his parents also complained that the district misled led them to believe he was on track to earning a high school diploma, when in fact he was not eligible for graduation. Perez and his parents filed a due process complaint with Michigan's Department of Education, alleging the district fell short in meeting its obligations under IDEA. IDEA guarantees students with disabilities a "free appropriate public education" to prepare them for further education, a career, and a fulfilled independent life. 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). The district eventually settled and promised to provide Perez with certain relief, including additional schooling at the Michigan School for the Deaf. But the settlement did not provide either Perez or his family with money.

Perez then filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, claiming a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), and sought compensatory damages for the emotional distress he endured based on the years of educational deprivation. The district court dismissed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, finding that because Perez had settled his IDEA claim, he did not fully "exhaust" the dispute-resolution mechanism available under the IDEA before filing his federal lawsuit.

In an opinion authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court reversed. The ADA, like other federal anti-discrimination laws, provides compensatory damages that are not available under IDEA. Therefore, a plaintiff is not barred from pursuing the panoply of remedies under the antidiscrimination laws even if the administrative remedies under IDEA have not been fully pursued.

School districts should carefully review settlement agreements to ensure they contain the full and complete release of all claims in connection with any IDEA-related dispute.

© 2023 Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC National Law Review, Volume XIII, Number 81

About this Author

Ahmad Chehab Employment Attorney Miller Canfield
Senior Attorney

Ahmad Chehab focuses his practice on employment law, including advising and representing employers in collective bargaining, labor arbitrations and contract negotiation. Ahmad also has experience directing and conducting investigations of employee misconduct and developing and coordinating staff training programs. 

Ahmad has handled litigation matters in state and federal courts, as well as in various administrative agencies including the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; the Michigan Department of Civil Rights; the U.S. Department...

Ashley N. Higginson Employment Attorney Miller Canfield Law Firm

Ashley Higginson's practice focuses on employment and labor issues, with particular experience in education matters.

Ashley has extensive experience working with public school districts, charter and private schools, and schools for students with disabilities. Her work includes matters involving boards of education, the Open Public Records Act, FERPA, teacher tenure, special education and 504 accommodations, teacher tenure charges, harassment and discrimination claims, public bidding and union negotiation.

Ashley has...

Brian Schwartz Employment Attorney Miller Canfield Law Firm

Brian Schwartz represents management in various aspects of labor and employment counseling and litigation.

His practice focuses on defending single-plaintiff and class-action lawsuits involving retiree health benefit disputes, employment discrimination (race, gender, and disability discrimination), harassment, and retaliation claims, as well as wage and hour claims, FMLA claims, ERISA disputes, Title IX claims, Freedom of Information Act and due process lawsuits. He also counsels employers on drafting enforceable non-competition, non-solicitation and confidentiality...