LANSING – A case against Sturgis Public Schools will be heard by the Michigan Supreme Court.
In an article printed in the Detroit News, Miguel Perez, a deaf student who attended Sturgis Public Schools claims he did not receive a qualified sign language interpreter for 12 years, which he said left him unable to learn or communicate at school. Months before his high school graduation, the school told his parents they would only provide a "certificate of completion" rather than a diploma.
In 2017, Perez filed claims in a state administrative proceeding under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and related state statutes. However, the hearing officer dismissed the ADA claim on the grounds that he lacked the authority to hear it.
The Sturgis School District school district later settled Perez’s IDEA claim, including an agreement to pay for his attendance at the Michigan School for the Deaf, sign-language instruction for him and his family, and his family’s attorneys’ fees, according to court records.
Perez then filed a lawsuit against Sturgis Schools in federal court in 2018 for his ADA claim, which unlike IDEA allows for compensatory damages for emotional distress.
The U.S. District Court at that time dismissed Perez's claim, saying he'd not fully pursued it through the state administrative proceedings process. Perez argued that exhaustion would have been futile because he'd gotten all the relief available in the IDEA proceedings through the settlement.
A divided panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit affirmed the ruling, concluding that Perez's decision to settle his IDEA claim meant that he was barred from bringing a similar lawsuit against the school district, "even under a different federal law," because of an "exhaustion" requirement under IDEA that required him to complete the IDEA administrative process.
The majority concluded that Perez didn't "exhaust" the process because the hearing officer didn't rule on whether he got an appropriate education under IDEA, because of the parties' settlement.
Perez's attorneys asked the Supreme Court to review the case, arguing the 6th Circuit's holding on the futility exception is an "outlier" and created a split with other circuit courts of appeals that have recognized such an exception. Attorneys for Sturgis Schools urged the court to deny Perez's petition. They argued that it turned on his request for emotional distress damages and, because of the high court's intervening ruling in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller, Perez cannot recover emotional distress damages under the ADA.
Sturgis Schools also contended that the courts of appeals are "uniformly" in agreement that plaintiffs seeking damages must exhaust the administrative process.
Over the summer, the justices invited the U.S. solicitor general's office to weigh in, and it urged the high court to take up the case, which they did.
Sturgis Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Art Ebert says while he is not in a position t to into detail, he can share that he believes every experience is a learning process. Ebert says through this too, the Sturgis Public Schools will learn and grow as an educational system.
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