The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires parents challenging IEPs and IEP-related decisions to exhaust administrative remedies prior to filing a lawsuit against the school district. The IDEA’s exhaustion requirement is straightforward when applied to claims alleging a violation of the IDEA. However, complications arise when parents bring claims alleging an IEP or IEP-related decision violates another statute (such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), for example); particularly when the other statues permits an award of damages, which are not available under IDEA.
In Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, ___ US ___ (2023), handed down on March 21, the parents filed a request for a due process hearing alleging the school district failed to provide their son a free appropriate public education (FAPE), as required by IDEA. The parents and the school district negotiated a settlement agreement resolving the parents’ IDEA claims. Later, the parents filed a lawsuit alleging the school district had also violated the ADA, and requesting damages. The school district opposed the parents’ lawsuit on the grounds they failed to initiate or exhaust IDEA’s administrative remedies. The district court agreed with the school district and dismissed the parents’ case. The Sixth Circuit affirmed.
The parents petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case. The Supreme Court agreed to take the case, which is usually bad news for the school district. And bad news it was. The Supreme Court ruled, unanimously, the parents were not required to exhaust IDEA’s administrative remedies where they were seeking a remedy not available under the IDEA. Damages in this case.
Perez will, without doubt, increase the frequency and burden of special education litigation for school districts. Parents may, if they wish, litigate their IDEA claims in a due process hearing and, separately, file their ADA claims (and other claims where damages are available) in court. Alternatively, parents may initiate a due process hearing and, if they don’t like the result, file a separate lawsuit for damages. Or, as in this case, settle their IDEA claims then file their claims for damages in court.
Perez calls for a legislative remedy unless Congress actually intended to grant parents the right to pursue similar or related special education claims in different venues. In the meantime, educators and lawyers settling IDEA cases will want to carefully consider crafting settlement agreements with releases broad enough to bar damages claims arising under other statutes.