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Deaf student denied interpreter makes inroads with high court

The justices will sort out whether a settlement marked the end of a deaf student's lawsuit against his school for disability discrimination. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court appeared sympathetic on Wednesday to arguments from a deaf student fighting to sue a school district that denied him a sign language interpreter. 

Miguel Luna Perez claims his school discriminated against him for 12 years when it refused to offer him proper accommodations for his disability. Perez and the school have already settled some of these claims out of court, but Perez has yet to receive any monetary compensation for the school’s actions. 

The justices appeared to think the school was trying to have its cake and eat it too by blocking Perez from pursuing monetary compensation. 

“The question is what should have Miguel done,” Justice Elena Kagan said. 

Kagan said it was hard for her to see why the suit could not move forward based on how Perez has navigated litigation. She said the school was putting students with disabilities in a quandary that would force them to pick between immediate relief and future damages. 

Justice Amy Coney Barrett said the school was creating a very narrow world for students to receive compensation for disability discrimination. She noted that if Perez had taken the route the school suggested, he would have precluded himself from any attorney fee compensation that his settlement included. 

“It’s hard for me to see how the ADA claim ever gets asserted,” the Trump appointee said. 

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said the school was limiting Perez’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“Wouldn’t that be limiting rights, procedures and relief under the ADA,” the Biden appointee asked. 

Perez began his education at Sturgis Public School District when he was 9 years old. While an expert recommended the school provide him with an aide who could communicate using American Sign Language, the school provided Perez with an aide who was not only unfamiliar with ASL but who had no experience working with deaf students. The school attempted to teach Perez Signed English instead under the assumption it would be easier for the aide to pick up. By the end of his time at Sturgis, Perez had learned neither Signed English nor ASL. 

Meanwhile, because the school had allegedly been awarding Perez inflated grades, his parents were led to believe he would earn a high school diploma. The school informed the family only months before Perez was set to graduate that Perez would only be qualified for a certificate of completion. 

Perez filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education in 2017, claiming that Sturgis violated federal and state disability laws. An administrative law judge initially dismissed Perez’s claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. Perez’s claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act still remained, but the school headed off a hearing by agreeing to pay for Perez’s attendance at the Michigan School for the Deaf and for sign language instruction for the teen and his family. 

Perez then moved to sue Sturgis in federal court on the claims that had previously been dismissed. He claimed the school discriminated against him by providing inadequate resources for his participation at the school. Perez also sought damages for emotional distress. 

The school argued that Perez could not bring his suit because he had not exhausted administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The district court agreed, dismissing the suit, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed. Perez then petitioned the Supreme Court for review. 

Perez argues that the lower court’s interpretation of the act should not bar him from bringing an ADA claim. If this were the case, Perez claims, people with disabilities would be prevented from taking settlements in favor or preserving their ability to bring these suits. 

“If allowed to stand, the Sixth Circuit’s misinterpretation of Section 1415(l) will inflict severe harm on children with disabilities and their families,” Roman Martinez, an attorney with Latham & Watkins representing Perez, wrote in his brief. “Most significantly, it requires them to reject reasonable IDEA settlements — and the promise of immediate educational relief — in order to preserve their meritorious claims under other statutes. “Section 1415(l) does not mandate that senseless result, which turns the IDEA’s settlement-promoting administrative scheme on its head. This Court should reverse.” 

Perez claimed the school wants the justices to hand down a ruling to limit ADA rights. 

“What Sturgis is really seeking is a rule that would nullify ADA rights,” Martinez said. 

The government participated in Wednesday’s arguments as amicus curiae in support of Perez. It claims the Sixth Circuit’s ruling shouldn’t stand because it doesn’t make sense. 

“Settlement in this context is exhaustive,” Anthony Yang, assistant to the U.S. solicitor general, said. 

The school argues that Congress assigned the IDEA as the primary law to guarantee children a free appropriate public education so all claims must originate there. A contrary reading would allow claims to circumvent Congress’ wishes. 

Shay Dvoretzky, an attorney for the school with Skadden Arps, warned that damages might become a magic word that allows litigants to bring two suits at the same time. 

Perez’s attendance in the courtroom on Wednesday created a unique situation in which the court provided ASL interpreters. Because of the fast-paced and often complex nature of the justices' questions, Perez was provided with four interpreters who worked in shifts throughout the argument. While one interpreter signed the justices’ questions, another summarized those questions for Perez. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Education

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