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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Deaf student denied school interpreter prevails at high court

The school failed to sway the justices that money damages were off the table since it had already settled with the family on some claims.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A Michigan school that failed to provide one deaf student with a sign language interpreter must face a lawsuit for monetary compensation, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, finding no bar to such relief in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Sturgis Public School District had argued that Miguel Luna Perez was barred from seeking money damages because he had already settled with the school as to certain claims.

Justice Neil Gorsuch found otherwise, however, in the unanimous decision for Perez, saying the school read too much into a statutory carve-out that prevents individuals from seeking relief from some laws while engaged in so-called IDEA suits. 

“That condition simply is not met in situations like ours, where a plaintiff brings a suit under another federal law for compensatory damages — a form of relief everyone agrees IDEA does not provide," the Trump appointee wrote.

When the justices heard oral arguments in January, Perez's attorney Roman Martinez warned the court that a ruling for Sturgis would leave people with disabilities to choose between taking settlements or preserving their ability to bring these suits.

Martinez was grateful for the outcome of the case Tuesday. 

“The court’s ruling vindicates the rights of students with disabilities to obtain full relief when they suffer discrimination,” Martinez, who is with the firm Latham & Watkins, said in a statement. “Miguel and his family look forward to pursuing their legal claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Gorsuch emphasized in the opinion that the court is addressing only what lawmakers themselves have written. 

“The school district worries that our understanding of §1415(l) would frustrate Congress’s wish to route claims about educational services to administrative agencies with ‘special expertise' in such matters,” Gorsuch wrote. “But ‘it is ... our job to apply faithfully the law Congress has written,’ and ‘we cannot replace the actual text with speculation as to Congress’ intent.’"  

Perez was 9 when he enrolled at Sturgis. Though experts recommended that the district provide Perez with an aide to teach him American Sign Language, it never did so in 12 years, instead providing an aide who had no experience working with deaf students.

The district assumed that the aide would have an easier time picking up Signed English, so that is what it tried teach Perez. By the end of his time at Sturgis, however, Perez wound up having learned neither Signed English nor ASL. Perez’s parents were blindsided when the school informed them he would not be able to graduate and instead would qualify for a certificate of completion. 

Arthur Ebert, the superintendent of Sturgis Public Schools, said the district plans to use the ruling to improve the experiences of future students. “Through this too; we will gain knowledge, insight, and understanding that will help us maximize every student's true potential,” Ebert said in a statement.

Having joined the district after Sturgis and Perez reached their IDEA settlement, Ebert was unable to otherwise comment on the specifics of the case.

Perez took on the Michigan Department of Education in 2017, describing violations of federal and state disability laws. Only his IDEA claims remained after an administrative law judge others under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The school and Perez came to a settlement on the remaining claims that forced Sturgis to pay for Perez’s attendance at the Michigan School for the Deaf and for sign language instruction for him and his family. 

Still wanting monetary compensation, Perez filed a federal complaint for discrimination. He also sought emotional distress damages. 

The district court sided with the school, finding that Perez had yet to exhaust administrative remedies under IDEA. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, leaving Perez to petition the Supreme Court for review. 

Shay Dvoretzky, an attorney for Sturgis with Skadden Arps, declined to comment on the ruling. 

Follow @KelseyReichmann
Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Education

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