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Supreme Court Allows Parents to Bring ADA Claims Against School Districts for Monetary Damages

On March 21, 2023, the United States Supreme Court ruled that parents of students with disabilities who sue for disability discrimination under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), do not have to exhaust their remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) before seeking monetary damages.  The case, Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, involved a deaf student who, through his parents, brought a claim that his school district misrepresented his aide’s qualifications in American Sign Language.  Due in part to these misrepresentations, the parents claimed that the student’s communication abilities were permanently harmed, and he went years without making genuine progress in school. 

In court, the school district argued that 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l) requires parents “seeking relief that is also available under the IDEA” to first exhaust the IDEA’s administrative remedies.  In other words, the school district argued that the Student and his Parents could not make a claim under the ADA, a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability, without first going through the administrative process of the IDEA, an education act which makes available a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to eligible children with disabilities.  

In response, the Supreme Court unanimously held that an ADA claim for monetary damages may be brought without first exhausting IDEA remedies, because monetary damages are not available to plaintiffs under the IDEA.  This decision builds on a previous case, Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools (2017).  In Fry, the Supreme Court decided that the exhaustion requirement of the IDEA applies if the crux of the non-IDEA federal claim amounts to a denial of FAPE, or in other words, whether the alleged harm is the same kind of harm that the IDEA seeks to address.  Now, in Sturgis,the Supreme Court has further limited the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement, focusing on whether the relief being sought was available as a remedy under the IDEA, even though the parents appeared to be making a claim for the denial of FAPE.  In short, per Sturgis, the IDEA administrative exhaustion requirement only applies to suits brought under other federal laws that seek relief available under the IDEA.

Although parents can now bypass the IDEA exhaustion requirement if they are seeking monetary damages under the ADA, they must still actually establish that intentional discrimination occurred in order to be successful.  To meet this standard, parents and students will still need to show that a school district acted with deliberate indifference, bad faith, or gross misjudgment.

If your school district has any additional questions regarding this case, our education attorneys are available to consult on the matter, as well as other education law questions or concerns that you may have.  Please contact Marsha Moses at [email protected], Michelle Laubin at [email protected], or Christine Sullivan at [email protected] for assistance.

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