On March 21, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously determined that parents do not have to exhaust their IDEA administrative remedies if they seek only monetary damages under Section 504 or the ADA.

In this case (Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools “Sturgis”) the school district was alleged to have denied a qualified interpreter to a deaf student for 12 years and to have misled the parents and student into thinking the student would graduate on time, informing them only in the months prior to graduation that the student would not, in fact, be eligible for graduation. After filing and settling their due process claim with the school district, the student (who was over 18 at the time of filing) filed a federal lawsuit, alleging violations of Section 504 and the ADA, seeking compensatory damages for emotional distress and lost income resulting from the school district’s failures.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court, the student argued that he was not required to exhaust his IDEA administrative remedies because he was not seeking remedies that were available under the IDEA. The school district argued that the student was required to exhaust his IDEA administrative remedies because the student alleged a failure to provide a free and appropriate public education. The entire argument centered on the differences between remedy or relief sought. However, the U.S. Supreme Court did not find that there was any difference between remedy or relief, holding that “relief means remedy.” The Court expressly indicated that if Congress intended to distinguish the two terms, they should have done so.

As a result of this case, parents and students may avoid IDEA exhaustion remedies by filing directly with federal court demanding monetary damages.

An additional note, the Congressional Research Services, a research institute working directly for members and committees of the U.S. Congress, has provided a Legal Sidebar for members of Congress on this case indicating that Congress has a history of legislating in this area in response to Supreme Court decisions and this is an area where Congress could clarify its intent.

What Does This Mean For Your District?

In the daily operations of school districts serving students with disabilities, the Sturgis decision changes nothing about the exemplary services public schools provide every day to students with disabilities. The expectation from many observers is that the Sturgis decision could, however,  result in higher settlement demands for school districts. Please reach out to a member of Ennis Britton’s Special Education Team for more information on this case, or obtain a recording of Ennis Britton’s case law update discussing this case.

Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, 143 S. Ct. 859 (2023)