Supreme Court rules in favor of plaintiff in lawsuit over special education services
Allows plaintiff to sue for monetary damages under ADA
The U.S. Supreme Court on March 21, 2023, issued a unanimous opinion holding that special education students who file suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) seeking monetary compensation do not first have to exhaust administrative procedures under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). (Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools (2023) 598 U.S. ___, 143 S.Ct. 859.) The Court’s decision addresses a split in the circuit courts of appeal on this issue and sets a new precedent nationwide and for California local educational agencies that could have significant impact on school districts and county offices of education.

Specifically, the Ninth Circuit, the federal court of appeals with jurisdiction over California, has in previous cases held that the administrative complaint procedures under IDEA must be exhausted before a claimant may file suit for damages under the ADA or other federal law, where the damages sought were intended to address an LEA’s failure to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to the claimant. (See, Paul G. v. Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (9th Cir. 2019) 933 F.3d 1096 and D.D. v. Los Angeles Unified School District (9th Cir. 2021) 18 F.4th 1043.) The holding in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools represents a change to the legal landscape in California because it overturns that Ninth Circuit precedent. This article seeks to address some of the legal and practical issues triggered by the decision.

The opinion
The plaintiff, Perez, alleged that the district failed to provide him with appropriate special education services. After settling his IDEA claim, Perez then sued the district for damages under ADA. The district filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that Perez had not exhausted his administrative procedures under IDEA (i.e., by filing a due process complaint that included this issue) prior to bringing his suit. The lower courts agreed with the district and dismissed Perez’s claims, and the Supreme Court took the case to settle the split in the circuit courts.

The Court’s relatively short opinion rested on an analysis of the plain language of IDEA (20 U.S.C. § 1415(l)). Specifically, by its terms, IDEA allows plaintiffs to seek relief under other federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities. However, IDEA also provides that if a civil action under ADA or such other federal law seeks “relief” that is also available under IDEA, a plaintiff must exhaust IDEA’s administrative procedures before initiating a lawsuit.

Now that parents may file ADA claims before or simultaneously with IDEA claims, the analysis of whether to settle and for what is more complicated.
Perez read this provision to mean that he was not required to exhaust IDEA’s administrative procedures before proceeding with his ADA lawsuit, which sought monetary damages, a relief that is not available under IDEA. The district on the other hand urged the Court to interpret the provision, consistent with Ninth Circuit precedent, as requiring compliance with IDEA’s exhaustion of administrative procedures when the relief sought, including monetary damages, is for the same underlying harm that IDEA is meant to address. The Court adopted Perez’s reading of the law and held that, since monetary damages are not available under IDEA, a plaintiff need not exhaust administrative procedures under IDEA in order to file an ADA suit seeking such damages, even if the underlying harm (e.g., failure to provide a FAPE) is the same.
Potential issues for consideration
The Court’s decision opens a potential new avenue of litigation that could give rise to a number of issues for LEAs as detailed below.
wood blocks with the letters A, D, A stacked on each other

Attorneys’ fees

ADA provides an additional source of potential attorneys’ fees awards, as it provides judges with the discretion to award attorneys’ fees to a prevailing party. (42 U.S.C., § 12205; Fischer v. SJB-P.D. Inc (9th Cir. 2000) 214 F.3d 1115, 1118.) The ruling could make it attractive for special education attorneys to bring ADA claims against LEAs while also, or instead of, litigating parallel IDEA claims before the Office of Administrative Hearings. This could lead to a situation in which an LEA is required to provide damages to pay for additional education or services for a special education student.
Approach to litigation
Many LEAs settle special education claims. Now that parents may file ADA claims before or simultaneously with IDEA claims, the analysis of whether to settle and for what, including money damages not available under IDEA, is more complicated. The holding in Perez permitting claims for money damages without exhaustion of IDEA’s administrative procedures might make settlement not just a more attractive option to LEAs, it could also increase the cost of settlement. Additionally, litigating ADA claims in court is very expensive, making settlement a better option even if the settlement amount is higher.

An issue that may favor LEAs is that of insurance coverage. It is possible that LEAs insurance coverage will cover and/or provide defense of an ADA claim, while IDEA claims are not currently covered. This could reduce costs and provide an additional source of funds for potential settlement. However, LEAs will have to balance whether their deductible will be more than what they might have to pay to a prevailing plaintiff. In that case, it may be wise to move forward without tendering the claim to their insurance company. LEAs should review their memoranda of coverage to determine their options.