This Report summarizes cases granted review on October 3, 2022
Case Granted Review: Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, 21-887
Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, 21-887. The Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act requires plaintiffs to exhaust administrative procedures before bringing federal, non-IDEA claims that seek relief that is also available under the IDEA. 20 U.S.C. §1415(l). At issue is (1) whether, and in what circumstances, courts should excuse exhaustion of administrative proceedings as futile; and (2) whether a non-IDEA claim seeking money damages not available under IDEA is subject to the exhaustion requirement.
In accordance with IDEA administrative procedures, petitioner Miguel Perez filed a due process complaint with the Michigan Department of Education, alleging that his school district violated the IDEA and Americans with Disabilities Act. The hearing officer dismissed the ADA claim for lack of jurisdiction, and the parties settled the IDEA claim. Perez later filed suit in federal court, seeking compensatory damages under the ADA for the school’s alleged failure to provide the resources necessary for him to participate fully in class. The district court granted the school district’s motion to dismiss, agreeing that because Perez had settled the claim before going through IDEA administrative procedures, he had failed to meet the exhaustion requirement. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. 3 F.4th 236.
The Sixth Circuit first determined that Perez’s ADA claim was subject to the exhaustion requirement, based on the statutory language that it “seek[s] relief that is also available” under the IDEA. Applying the standard from Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 137 S. Ct. 743 (2017), the court determined that regardless of the language used, the essence of the complaint was “the denial of a free appropriate public education,” and thus the exhaustion requirement applied. It acknowledged that the specific remedy sought―compensatory damages for emotional distress―was not available under the IDEA, but reasoned that the focus of the analysis is not on the type of relief sought, but rather the harm sought to be redressed. The Sixth Circuit then concluded that Perez had failed to exhaust administrative remedies because the IDEA required exhaustion to the same extent as would be required if the action had been brought under the IDEA. Because a plaintiff can bring an action under the IDEA only if a state determines they have not been denied a free appropriate public education at the conclusion of the administrative process, and Perez settled his claim before any such determination, he failed to meet the exhaustion requirement. The court rejected Perez’s arguments for a futility exception, concluding that the statutory language had no such exception and that Perez’s claimed reason for futility―that he sought different relief than that allowed under the IDEA―could not be a basis for finding futility.
Petitioner argues that the statutory text shows that the exhaustion requirement does not apply where plaintiffs seek a remedy not available under the IDEA―a question explicitly left unresolved in Fry. He emphasizes that exhaustion applies only when a plaintiff seeks “relief” that is also “available” under the IDEA, arguing that both terms refer to the remedy being sought. Petitioner insists that the circuit courts that have held otherwise improperly ignored statutory language based on policy concerns that plaintiffs should not be able to avoid IDEA exhaustion by adding a damages claim. On the futility issue, petitioner argues that Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305 (1988), recognized a futility exception for IDEA claims, and the legislative history of the exhaustion statute also supports the exception. He distinguishes Supreme Court authority which held that judges should not create exceptions to statutory exhaustion requirements.