Supreme Court Unlocks New Path to Relief for Disabled Students

Font Size:

The Supreme Court confirms an alternative avenue for disabled students to enforce their rights to receive an equitable education.

Font Size:

The Supreme Court delivered a significant win for students with disabilities in a landmark March 2023 decision, Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools. The ruling established a new avenue for disabled students to seek redress when schools violate their rights to free appropriate public education (FAPE), as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Perez’s importance is underscored by the historical context—and persistent challenges—of educating students with disabilities in the United States.

For decades, students with disabilities had been denied access to public schools throughout the United States. In 1948, only 12 percent of students in public schools were deemed to have disabilities. That number only marginally increased by 1970, with only one in five children with disabilities attending school. During this period, several states had discriminatory laws in place that excluded students who were deaf, blind, or had intellectual or emotional disabilities, effectively barring most disabled children from attending school.

To address these injustices, Congress enacted the IDEA in 1975, originally known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. This law mandates that students with disabilities receive tailored FAPE in the least restrictive environment. Relatedly, the statute requires that schools develop an individualized education program (IEP) for each disabled student.

The IDEA opened many doors for students with disabilities, both figuratively and literally. Before IDEA, the U.S. excluded nearly 1.8 million children with disabilities from public schools. After IDEA’s implementation, in the 2020-2021 school year, public schools provided more than 7.5 million students with disabilities with special education and related services.

Notwithstanding the IDEA’s many achievements, significant challenges persist. A major issue is the lack of adequate funding for special education programs. Although the IDEA authorizes up to 40 percent of average per-pupil spending to go toward funding special education, federal spending has never reached this level. States and school districts implement IDEA differently, which worsens the unequal access and quality of services for students with disabilities. Moreover, racial disparities continue to be prevalent as marginalized communities are regularly denied appropriate educational services.

Furthermore, the process of advocating for students’ rights can be challenging for families, as parents of students with disabilities face the burden of proving that an IEP insufficiently provides FAPE for their children.

Critically, the IDEA’s inadequate remedies are a formidable roadblock to achieving an equitable education for disabled students. To address disputes between parents and school districts, Congress established a comprehensive framework within the IDEA, including administrative due process hearings and the opportunity to appeal to state or federal courts. Parents can file due process complaints to contest decisions about IEPs and the provision of FAPE. If a parent is dissatisfied with the final decision of a due process hearing, they have the right to appeal to state or federal courts. However, parents typically must exhaust all available administrative remedies before going to court.

In addition to the IDEA, disabled students have rights and protections under other federal laws, such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Although these statutes have their own unique provisions, there is some overlap between them. Consequently, parents dissatisfied with the services provided by their school districts often bring claims under Section 504 and the ADA in addition to or instead of the IDEA.

The interconnected nature of the IDEA, Section 504, and the ADA has resulted in ongoing confusion over whether parents must exhaust all of the IDEA’s administrative remedies before filing lawsuits under Section 504 or the ADA. The lack of clarity surrounding the exhaustion requirement has hindered the timely resolution of disputes and created uncertainty for parents seeking redress for their children’s rights.

In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the exhaustion issue in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools. In this case, a 5 year-old girl was denied the opportunity to bring her service dog to school. In response, she filed a lawsuit against her school district, invoking Section 504 and the ADA. Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, outlined the Court’s position that a suit must seek relief for a FAPE denial under the IDEA to meet the statutory standard of exhaustion.

To guide lower courts in assessing whether a claim under Section 504 or the ADA relates to a FAPE denial, the Court presented two hypothetical questions. The first question asked whether the plaintiff could have brought a similar claim if the alleged conduct occurred at a public facility that was not a school, such as a theater or a library. The second question inquired whether an adult at the school, such as an employee or visitor, could have raised a comparable grievance.

According to the Court, if the answers to these hypothetical questions are affirmative, it is unlikely that the complaint alleges a denial of FAPE. Moreover, even a complaint that does not explicitly allege a FAPE denial may be deemed to fall under IDEA if the answers to these two questions are negative.

To illustrate, Justice Kagan provided examples. In one example, a discrimination suit was filed by a student who uses a wheelchair and cannot access a school building without ramps. Although the situation hampered educational access, the primary issue was discrimination rather than the denial of FAPE, as similar complaints could be made about any public building. Even an employee of the school who uses a wheelchair could raise a similar claim.

In another example, a student with learning disabilities who is being denied tutoring might allege discrimination without explicitly mentioning FAPE. However, the essence of the claim would still revolve around the denial of a FAPE because the two hypothetical questions would be answered negatively, indicating that the complaint concerns the denial of educational services necessary for FAPE.

Despite concurring with the Court’s judgment in the Fry case, Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, expressed concerns about the Court’s hypothetical questions, suggesting that they might cause confusion. Experts also raised doubts about the clarity of distinguishing between claims based on a FAPE denial under the IDEA versus claims of discrimination under other laws. Determining the need for the exhaustion of administrative remedies in such cases has proven to be complex and burdensome. The cumbersome adjudicative process under federal special education laws leaves parents in a difficult position when pursuing claims under Section 504 and the ADA.

Justice Alito’s concerns become particularly evident in cases where parents raise complaints involving both a FAPE denial and discriminatory treatment that violates Section 504 and the ADA. In such instances, parents may seek various remedies, including an injunction to address the FAPE denial or monetary damages to compensate for violating their children’s civil rights.

The Perez case that was decided by the Supreme Court in March highlights such concerns. Between the ages of 9 and 20, Miguel Luna Perez attended Sturgis Public School District in Michigan. Because he is deaf, Miguel was entitled to have an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter in his classes. However, the assigned aide lacked qualifications and provided inadequate support, hindering Miguel’s learning and communication. Moreover, Sturgis school officials misrepresented Miguel’s progress, leading the Perez family to believe he would graduate on time, only to be informed months before graduation that he would not receive a diploma.

Under the IDEA, students with disabilities can seek remedies when denied a FAPE. The Perez family initiated the administrative process by filing a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education. Ultimately, they settled the matter, with the school district agreeing to enroll Miguel at the Michigan School for the Deaf and provide ASL instruction to the family.

In addition, the Perez family pursued monetary damages for the harm the school district caused by failing to provide Miguel a FAPE. Although the IDEA allows for injunctive relief, it does not provide compensatory damages. Consequently, the Perez family filed an ADA lawsuit seeking compensatory damages. Whether the Perez family had a legal basis for their lawsuit hinged on how section 1415(l) of IDEA was interpreted.

According to section 1415(l), students can seek “remedies” under other federal laws protecting their rights, except when that remedy overlaps with the IDEA. Sturgis argued that section 1415(l) prevented the Perez family from pursuing its ADA claim because it was necessary for the Perez family to exhaust administrative processes under the IDEA before pursuing a lawsuit under another federal law that seeks relief for the same harm the IDEA addresses.

Conversely, the Perez family argued that exhaustion was only required when seeking remedies provided by the IDEA under another federal law. They maintained that Miguel’s ADA complaint sought compensatory damages not offered by the IDEA and, therefore, was not subject to the exhaustion requirement.

In a unanimous decision written by Justice Gorsuch, the Supreme Court adopted the Perez family’s interpretation. The Court clarified that section 1415(l) applies only to lawsuits seeking relief available under the IDEA. It emphasized that “remedies” and “relief” are synonymous in the context of section 1415, as treated in other parts of the statute.

As a result, the exhaustion requirement did not bar the Perez family’s ADA lawsuit because the damages sought were not available under the IDEA. The Court’s decision strengthens the implementation of FAPE rights, allowing students to seek monetary damages under non-IDEA civil rights laws and injunctive relief through IDEA administrative procedures.

Ultimately, the Court’s recent ruling significantly shifts the power dynamic between students with disabilities, their families, and school districts. It empowers students and parents by providing them with essential tools to address and rectify violations of disabled students’ educational rights. The Perez decision strongly emphasizes the importance of ensuring students with disabilities and their parents have meaningful avenues to seek redress, ensuring their rights are protected and effectively enforced. This pivotal ruling is a crucial milestone in the ongoing struggle for equitable education for students with disabilities.

Robyn M. Powell is an associate professor of law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.

This essay is a part of a nine-part series entitled The Supreme Court’s 2022-2023 Regulatory Term.