Shannon M. Smith
Kennedy & Graven, Chartered

On March 21, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an eight-page opinion—brief by Supreme Court standards—which announces a significant shift in special education law. In Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, the Supreme Court held that plaintiffs need not exhaust the administrative process required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) before seeking monetary damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), even when the plaintiff’s claims are based on the denial of a free appropriate public education. The Perez decision could require school districts, in certain circumstances, to adjust their strategies for resolving special education disputes.

The plaintiff in Perez (Student) attended schools in Michigan’s Sturgis Public School District from ages 9 through 20. Because the Student is deaf, the School District provided him with sign‑language interpreters during classroom instruction. According to the Student, the aides supplied by the School District were either unqualified or frequently absent from the classroom. The Student also alleged the School District mispresented his educational progress, claiming he believed he was on track to graduate with his high school class but was surprised to learn just months before graduation that the School District would not grant him a diploma.

Following these events, the Student and his parents filed an administrative complaint with the Michigan Department of Education. They alleged the School District had failed to provide the Student a free appropriate public education as required by the IDEA. The parties ultimately settled the state complaint, agreeing that the School District would provide the Student with the forward‑looking relief he sought, including additional instruction at a school for deaf students.

After settling the administrative complaint, however, the Student filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging a violation of the ADA and seeking backward-looking relief in the form of compensatory (i.e., money) damages for emotional distress. But the federal district court dismissed the lawsuit. The lower court agreed with the School District that a provision in the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l), barred the Student from asserting an ADA claim without first exhausting the administrative procedures required by the IDEA. Those procedures include participating in a due process hearing and appealing the result of that hearing to the state education agency. Because the Student had settled his administrative complaint, the lower court concluded he had not exhausted the required procedures. The Student appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the suit on the same ground. The U.S. Supreme Court then agreed to consider the case to resolve a “disagree[ment]” among the federal courts of appeals regarding how to interpret the IDEA’s exhaustion provision.

In a rare unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court reversed. The Court analyzed the language of the IDEA’s exhaustion provision in section 1415(l), which permits individuals to pursue “remedies available” under “other Federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities,” but requires the exhaustion of administrative procedures before “seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA].” The School District argued that plaintiffs, like the Student, are “seeking relief that is also available” under the IDEA whenever they seek to enforce their right to a free appropriate public education, no matter the specific remedy sought. But the Supreme Court concluded that plaintiffs “seeking relief” available under the IDEA must exhaust the administrative process only when they seek a specific remedy the IDEA can provide. Because compensatory damages are a form of remedy or relief that is not available under the IDEA, the Court ruled that the Student may pursue non-IDEA relief (i.e., money) via an ADA claim without first exhausting IDEA administrative procedures. The Court acknowledged that its decision treats the terms “remedies” and “relief” as synonymous but reasoned that its interpretation “is exactly how an ordinary reader would understand this particular provision.” With the dismissal of his ADA claim reversed, the Student’s claim will now proceed in the lower court.

The Perez decision clarifies that ADA (and, relatedly, Section 504) plaintiffs may pursue money damages in court, even if they have not fully exhausted the IDEA’s administrative dispute resolution process. As a result, the decision has the potential to increase the number of lawsuits brought against school districts arising out of special education disputes. The decision also creates an avenue for parents to obtain money damages separate from and in addition to traditional educational remedies like compensatory services based on claims that a school district has denied a free appropriate public education. When attempting to settle IDEA claims, school districts may now be presented with new demands from families for money damages. School districts should closely consult with their attorneys when negotiating settlement terms.

In addition to these ramifications, Perez leaves open several questions that the Court declined to consider, including the applicability of a “futility” exception to the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement and whether the money damages sought by the Student are even available under the ADA. Litigants and lower courts will continue to grapple with these unresolved issues.

This article is intended to provide general information with commentary. It should not be relied on as legal advice. If required, legal advice regarding this topic should be obtained from district legal counsel.

Shannon M. Smith is an attorney with the law firm of Kennedy & Graven, Chartered. For more information, please contact her at (612) 337-9302 or  

© Shannon M. Smith (2023). Used by permission.

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