US Supreme Court hears deaf Michigan man's request to sue Sturgis schools for damages

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday heard a 27-year-old deaf Michigan man's claim that he should be allowed to sue Sturgis Public Schools for compensatory damages for failing to provide him an adequate education for more than a decade even though it later paid to provide him additional instruction as an adult.

For 12 years, Miguel Luna Perez, who immigrated to Michigan from Mexico with his family, received good grades and was listed as an honor roll student despite being unable to read or write and having not learned basic facts such as the differences between mammals and reptiles and the meaning of slavery.

On Wednesday, the court heard Perez's claim that even though he and his family reached a legal settlement for Sturgis to pay for him to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf following what would have been his high school graduation, that shouldn't stop him from filing for financial damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Miguel Luna Perez, who is deaf, has a case before the U.S. Supreme Court saying he should be allowed to sue his school in Sturgis, MI., for damages for failing to provide him suitable instruction.
Miguel Luna Perez, who is deaf, has a case before the U.S. Supreme Court saying he should be allowed to sue his school in Sturgis, MI., for damages for failing to provide him suitable instruction.

Sturgis' lawyers argued that Perez's settlement — under a separate federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) — should preclude any damages claim under the ADA, a position which has been successful in lower courts, including a 2021 split decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati.

"It's important to look at the net effect of Sturgis' response," said Roman Martinez, the lawyer arguing Perez's case before the Supreme Court on Wednesday. "A parent who does everything right (by trying to get their child an appropriate education) ... they lose their ADA claims. That just can't be right.

"It essentially gives the school a full release, a get-out-of-jail card on ADA liability," he said.

The crux of the claim before the Supreme Court is the interaction between the IDEA and ADA under federal law. The IDEA says that any claim involving the requirement that schools provide a "free appropriate public education" must first exhaust administrative proceedings mandated under the IDEA. The school district argues that the settlement — which came after Perez's family filed a lawsuit under both statutes but a hearing examiner said he couldn't rule on damages or ADA claims — didn't qualify as their having "exhausted" the IDEA administrative process and gone to court.

But Perez's lawyers argued the settlement did exhaust the IDEA process since that statute doesn't provide for compensatory damages like the potential for lost wages — but the ADA does. Therefore, to reject the settlement — which could have delayed Perez getting a suitable education — in order to force an IDEA claim that didn't include damages to court — is nonsensical and against Congress' will in enacting the IDEA, which says those filing suits must first exhaust claims with remedies available under that statute, not others.

It was an argument that seemed to have traction with many of the justices.

"What should Miguel (and his family) have done differently than he did in this case?" asked Justice Elena Kagan, when the lawyer for the school district, Shay Dvoretzky, suggested the family could have made clear during negotiations that it was still insisting on its right to sue under the ADA before settlement. "Of course, parents aren't going to bypass the process. ... At the same time, they may also want (to say) I’m entitled under the ADA for damages."

When Dvoretzky argued that could undermine Congress' intent to run all claims about the provision of an appropriate public education through the IDEA process, since families could get around them by simply bringing claims for damages, Kagan balked. "It strikes me it’s the parents that have the greater incentive to have education fixed for their children," she said. "This is litigation being run by parents who are trying to do right by their kids."

Despite rules requiring that Perez, who started school in Michigan at age 9, be provided an adequate education and assistance in learning while deaf, the school district never provided him a qualified instructor, instead assigning him an aide, whose "sole qualification," according to court documents, was that "she attempt(ed) to teach herself Signed English by reading a book." Ultimately, he never learned Signed English or American Sign Language while at the school.

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Perez's lawyers said because he was never taught sign language — despite his parents being told that he was — he was denied the chance to participate in extra-curricular activities offered to non-deaf students as well as other programs and services. After being listed on the honor roll and being given A's and B's, he and his family were told just months before graduation that he would receive a certificate of completion instead of his high school diploma.

In a statement provided to the Free Press through his lawyers and interpreters, Perez said he graduated from Michigan School for the Deaf in 2020 and has learned construction though he isn't working. His lawyers have said the "severe neglect" he suffered in public schools "caused compensable pecuniary harm by dramatically limiting Miguel’s vocational prospects and earning capacity."

“My case at the U.S. Supreme Court is hard for me to understand," he said in the statement. "Part of it is about having no interpreter at Sturgis. Part of it is that some judges said I can’t tell my story in court. I want to tell my story in court. I wish I could have gone to college. I don’t have a job, but I want to have one. I want to make my own choices.”

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In arguing for Sturgis' position, Dvoretzky said that, at base, Perez's claim involves his right to an adequate education and that means it should begin — if not end — in the IDEA process. "What's at the bottom here is the question of an appropriate education," he said, adding that Congress wanted trained educational professionals — not judges, lawyers or parents — deciding what that looked like.

Meanwhile, he rejected arguments — including those from congressional records — suggesting the House and Senate intended to only require exhaustion of remedies, like the provision of a free appropriate public education, available under the IDEA, while allowing for non-IDEA remedies like damages to proceed.

It was an argument even some of the more conservative justices had difficulty accepting. Justice Amy Coney Barrett said under Sturgis' theory, "It’s hard for me to see how the ADA claim ever gets asserted" on an educational question. Justice Clarence Thomas said he wasn't sure how the claim for damages could fall under the question of whether the IDEA process was exhausted when damages aren't allowed under that statute.

Meanwhile, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson asked, theoretically, what would happen in a case where an 18-year-old student who was denied an adequate public education said she didn't want additional education but still wanted to file for damages. Would she be forced to exhaust the IDEA process? Dvoretzky said yes.

The court is expected to decide the case as to whether Perez can file an ADA claim in the next few months.

Following the oral arguments, Perez put out a statement saying he thought the courthouse was "a lovely building." He added, "It felt to me that they (the justices) really listened well to the lawyers. I appreciated that. ... I want to win and hope that others like me get interpreters.”

Contact Todd Spangler: Follow him on Twitter@tsspangler.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited the federal law's language requiring a "fair appropriate public education."

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: US Supreme Court hears deaf Michigan man's case against school