Supreme Court Unanimously Gets Thing ... Right?
Yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled, in a unanimous vote, to allow a deaf man to sue the Michigan school district that completely failed to give him the education he needed to get by in the world. As Yr Wonkette covered previously, it's an absolutely infuriating, tragic story of a kid with disabilities who never got the help he was entitled to under US law.
Read More: Oops, Small-Town Michigan Schools Forgot To Teach Deaf Kid For 12 Years, Now He Can't Communicate
Miguel Luna Perez was born deaf in Mexico. His parents never learned to sign, and never enrolled him in school there. When they immigrated to the USA, Miguel started school in their new town, Sturgis, Michigan. He was nine years old and had never learned sign language or to read in either English or Spanish. He had already missed out on crucial years for childhood language development.
But instead of getting him the special education resources he qualified for under federal law, the Sturgis school district failed him completely. Not only did he never learn American Sign Language (ASL) in school, he was assigned an aide who had no idea what she was doing. According to Luna Perez's lawyers, she taught herself some signs from a book and managed to communicate a little bit with Miguel, but it wasn't any real system of sign language that he could use with other people. He spent 12 years in the Sturgis schools but never learned to communicate.
In 2018, Luna Perez and his family reached an agreement with the school district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates that all children get a "free appropriate public education" in schools. The district paid to have him attend the Michigan School for the Deaf for four years, where he made some progress, but as the Detroit Free Press reported earlier this month, because he never learned language when it was developmentally appropriate, Luna Perez, now 27, is likely
unable, in the words of one expert who analyzed him, to ever develop higher-level abilities in reading, writing or math. Even after beginning to learn ASL at the Michigan School for the Deaf in his 20s, signed explanations eluded him. He remains, according to the claim, at greater risk of depression, anxiety and maltreatment. Occupationally, they say he is consigned to a life as an unskilled laborer despite having no cognitive impairment when he entered the school system. [Emphasis added — Dok]
Luna Perez sued the school district for damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that's where the Supreme Court comes in. The school district argued that because his family already agreed to a settlement under IDEA, Luna Perez couldn't sue under the ADA, because there's a catch, and it's a doozy: the text of IDEA requires a plaintiff to "exhaust" all possible options under IDEA before suing under any other law. Two lower courts agreed with the school district that by settling in 2018, Luna Perez had closed off any other avenues of relief.
This is where we get to write a very unusual sentence: The Roberts Court ruled unanimously that Luna Perez can proceed with his ADA lawsuit. However many options are in the IDEA law, not one of them includes collecting damages for harm done. In the eight-page decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the law's "administrative exhaustion requirement applies only to suits that ‘seek relief … also available under’ IDEA."
And 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.
Wow, as simple as that? No need for consulting the opinions of a 17th Century English witchfinder, or to make up new constitutional doctrines? Cool beans! And from Justice "Let The Trucker Freeze," no less!
The SCOTUS decision is only a partial win for Luna Perez, however, since it only settles the question of whether he can sue at all. Now the case will go back to lower courts to decide whether he can actually collect damages from the school system that never provided the education it was supposed to under federal education law. We're not a lawyer, but it seems to us that since the experts say he could have had a much better life if the district had just provided real ASL instruction and an interpreter, he has a good case.
And as Education Week points out, the case could also be helpful to other families, making it
easier for other students with disabilities and their families to bypass often slow-moving administrative proceedings under the IDEA when their chief claim is for damages under other federal laws such as the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
And that's a good lesson to school districts, too: give kids with disabilities the education they deserve, and you won't be sued.
[Education Week / SCOTUS decision / Photo: Luna Perez family via Detroit Free Press]
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.