08 July 2021

Sixth Circuit: Even where IDEA does not offer relief, exhaustion still required for ADA claim

Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit released its decision in Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Schools, No. 20-1076, a case involving a student’s claim for relief under both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The case solidifies the importance of the requirement of exhaustion procedures for relief under the IDEA before claims under the ADA can be adjudicated.

Miguel Perez, who is now 23, was a nine year old student who came from Mexico and started school in Sturgis Public School District.  Perez is deaf, so while he was in fact assigned a classroom aide, the aide was not trained to work with deaf students and was not trained in sign language.  Although he appeared to be succeeding academically, Perez was notified that he would not be eligible for a diploma but rather a “certificate of completion”, triggering his filing a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education (MDE).   In his complaint, Perez alleged that Sturgis denied him an adequate education and violated the IDEA, the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and two Michigan disability laws.  The school moved to dismiss the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims, as well as one state law claim.  Prior to the hearing scheduled for the IDEA claim, however, the parties were able to arrive at a settlement.  The school paid for Perez to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf, sign language instruction and other post-secondary compensatory education.  As such, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) dismissed the case.

Perez then filed suit in federal court several months later, naming Sturgis Public Schools and Sturgis Board of Education as defendants with one ADA claim and one claim under Michigan law.  Perez alleged that the school discriminated against him by failing to provide the resources necessary for him to fully participate in class.  He sought declaratory relief and compensatory damages for emotional distress, which the district court dismissed due to a failure to exhaust administrative processes under the IDEA.  This appeal followed.

In his appeal, Perez argued that the exhaustion provision did not apply because the relief he sought (emotional distress) was not a remedy available to him under the IDEA.  The court found that because the claims in Perez’s suit were fundamentally about the denial of an education, the administrative procedures under the IDEA must first be exhausted, even if the relief requested is not available under the IDEA.  The court concluded that whether IDEA must first be exhausted was not a matter of the kind of relief requested, but rather the type of harm a plaintiff is requesting relief from.  Because this was a harm arising from a denial of an education, in order for the ADA claim to move forward, IDEA administrative procedures must first be exhausted.

The issue here is that because Perez settled before a hearing was conducted on the IDEA claim, he had not satisfied its exhaustion requirements.  He did not take the steps to further litigate the claim and thus factual findings on whether Perez was in fact denied a free appropriate public education were never made.  Until those findings are made, a plaintiff cannot be eligible to sue under the ADA.  By settling, Perez and his family had to dismiss their complaint and were then barred from ever bringing the case against the school back into court, even if under a different corresponding statute or federal law.

Perez argued it would have been futile to exhaust the IDEA administrative protocol because the damages he sought were not even available under the IDEA.  The court was not persuaded; even where a futility exception could have existed, under the relevant statutory language, the court is unable to hear an ADA claim where it would also have to dismiss the IDEA claim for failure to exhaust.  The exhaustion requirement speaks to the exhaustion of procedures and processes, not the actual potential forms of relief themselves.  Therefore, where a plaintiff has not exhausted all processes under the IDEA, the correlating ADA claim must fail.

The court further stated that just because an ALJ may not be able to award money damages for emotional distress does not excuse the exhaustion requirements, nor can it serve as a basis of futility.  The court also reasoned that the administrative procedures available under the IDEA exist to allow for experienced judicial processionals to take part in the fact-finding process, establishing a record that would have been supportive for a potential follow-up suit under the ADA.

Because Perez settled his IDEA claim, he failed to meet the requirements of the IDEA’s exhaustion provision and was thus barred from bringing forth a similar claim under the ADA, affirming the district court’s decision.  Keep in mind the distinction made: exhaustion under the IDEA does not pertain to the type of relief sought, but rather to embarking on all administrative procedures available.

A copy of the opinion can be accessed here.