A deaf student in Michigan asked the Supreme Court in oral arguments Wednesday to allow his lawsuit against a public school district in Michigan to proceed. The student claims the school did not provide him with a qualified sign language interpreter, hurting his ability to graduate.
Miguel Luna Perez, the deaf student launching the legal battle pending before the high court, attended Sturgis Public Schools from age 9 to 20. As a disabled student, he was entitled under federal law to free public education that meets his needs.
Miguel and his parents were under the impression he would be provided with a qualified classroom aide and sign language interpreter and be able to graduate on time.
But they later were told by the school district that he only qualified for a “certificate of completion,” not a diploma.
They also learned the school district had provided an unqualified classroom aide for Miguel, who was not trained to work with deaf students.
The aide would also leave Miguel for several hours a day unattended — leaving him unable to communicate with others.
After discovering how Miguel had been treated, the family filed a complaint against the school district for violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires the school to meet a disabled student’s needs to achieve free public education.
The district settled the dispute with the family, agreeing to pay for post-secondary education and sign language instruction. Miguel was placed at Michigan School for the Deaf.
The family then filed a lawsuit in federal court, citing a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and seeking a financial award for violating Miguel’s rights because they could not obtain monetary damages under the first complaint.
The district court and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Miguel, saying because he settled the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, his other case was barred.
“Miguel did everything right. He settled,” Roman Martinez, who represented Miguel and his family, told the justices Wednesday.
“Congress didn’t punish kids for saying yes to favorable IDEA settlements. One way or the other, this case should proceed,” he said.
In their legal filing, they argued that if the 6th Circuit’s ruling was allowed to stand, it would “inflict great harm on students with disabilities and their families, by requiring them either to forfeit their non-IDEA rights (if they accept an IDEA settlement), or to give up the settlement and undergo lengthy and costly IDEA administrative proceedings.”
The school district, meanwhile, told the justices that Miguel did not exhaust his claims through the full process under the IDEA — as Congress prescribed through the law — because he settled.
“Mr. Perez‘s improper new argument that ‘settles’ equals ‘exhaustion’ is incorrect. An IDEA plaintiff cannot sue after settling,” said Shay Dvoretzky, who represented the district.
“Redress can also bear a different meaning…it’s the kind of situation where you might not get what you ask for, but you get what you need.”
In Wednesday’s oral arguments, justices from both sides of the aisle were skeptical of the district’s position.
Justice Clarence Thomas asked Mr. Dvoretzky whether school districts can include in their settlements some sort of a general liability release from future lawsuits, noting here the school did not do that.
“Couldn’t you have solved this problem or precluded this, obviated this problem by obtaining a general release in your settlement?” he asked.
And Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson echoed Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s concerns that finding for the district could preclude complaints under the two different federal laws.
“As Justice Barrett pointed out earlier, you know, through your analysis, it would seem as though you wouldn’t have any ability to bring an ADA claim if someone, you know, is successful on the IDEA claim,” Justice Jackson told Mr. Dvoretzky.
The Biden administration also argued before the high court, siding with Miguel.
The lawyer from the Justice Department said if the justices allowed the lower court ruling to stand, it would delay students from obtaining favorable relief through settlements to avoid forfeiting other claims.
“The path [Miguel] took in this case was exactly right. He settled his IDEA claim, obtained prompt educational relief, and then filed a separate ADA action for compensatory damages, things he couldn’t get under the IDEA,” said Anthony Yang, assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General.
The case is Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, and a ruling is expected by the end of June.