At age nine, Miguel Luna Perez began attending public schools in Sturgis, Michigan, after he and his family arrived from Mexico. Because Miguel is deaf, a neighboring school district provided a teacher of the deaf to evaluate him when he first enrolled. They recommended that Miguel learn American Sign Language (ASL), the predominant sign language used by the Deaf community in the United States. 

The school district, however, assigned him a classroom aide who did not know ASL. Instead, she had attempted to teach herself Signed English, a system of communicating that is a visual representation of English. (Although Signed English is a pedagogical tool developed by teachers of deaf students, it is rarely used by deaf adults.) The school district decided to teach Perez Signed English not because it would benefit his education, but because it believed “it would be easier for the teaching assistant to learn.” 

Between 2004 and 2016, while Miguel was enrolled in Sturgis schools, the district placed him in classrooms with no ASL interpreter or instructor. During his last year at Sturgis, Miguel’s aide would leave his classroom for hours at a time, leaving him with no one to communicate with. By the time Miguel was a senior in high school, he had learned neither American Sign Language nor Signed English. Instead, he communicated “through an idiosyncratic method of invented signs” that only he and his aide understood, which limited his future job and earning prospects. 

All the while, the district told Miguel’s family that he was on track to graduate from high school and even attend college. But just months before graduation, they told his parents that he wasn’t eligible to receive a diploma and only qualified for a “certificate of completion.” For years, the district had failed to give him the tools needed to acquire basic proficiency in any language—whether ASL, English, or his native Spanish. 

Now, Miguel wants to hold the school district accountable. On Wednesday, the Court will hear arguments in his case, Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, to decide what students like him have to do before they can sue for disability discrimination in federal court. The case could allow the justices to weaken civil rights for people with disabilities by erecting more obstacles that prevent discrimination victims from obtaining relief in court. 

In 2018, Miguel filed a complaint against the school board based on several laws that protect people with disabilities, including the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that guarantees disabled students an education “designed to meet their unique needs.” Perez also sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), an overlapping but distinct law that requires public facilities, including schools, to accommodate people with disabilities. The main difference between the two laws is that under the IDEA, the principal remedy is changes to a student’s individualized education plan; under the ADA, plaintiffs can pursue money damages.

The IDEA requires plaintiffs like Miguel to first file complaints with the Michigan Department of Education, which he did, along with his ADA claim. Before the hearing, though, the district offered Miguel a settlement for his IDEA claim, which he accepted. As part of the settlement, the district and Miguel’s parents agreed that he would continue his education at the Michigan School for the Deaf, where he could eventually receive a high school diploma. The settlement didn’t implicate Miguel’s ADA claims, so he moved forward in federal court.

The district court, however, dismissed Miguel’s ADA claims. By settling his IDEA claim instead of allowing the hearing officer to reach its merits, said Judge Paul Maloney of the Western District of Michigan, he had “failed to exhaust” the administrative procedures available to him. Exhaustion is a legal principle that requires people to use all their options in administrative proceedings before they can go to court. But that principle is a nonsensical one to someone like Miguel, who has already settled his IDEA claim and now wants to pursue monetary damages through the ADA.

Normally, a judge would grant a “futility” exception to the exhaustion requirement for someone like Miguel. But according to the district court, the only way Miguel could have preserved the ability to bring his ADA claim would have been to reject the settlement from the school and proceed to a full hearing. This is red-tape bureaucracy of DMV nightmares: The judge essentially told Miguel that he should have put his education on hold in order to have a chance to vindicate his rights in court. The decision transforms the IDEA, a law meant to help students with disabilities, into a barrier to federal court proceedings where they can receive monetary compensation for past discrimination. 

In 2021, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. Judge Jane Stranch dissented, arguing that the majority “disfigures Perez’s allegations” to arrive at a result contrary to Congress’s intent: to “reaffirm the viability of the federal antidiscrimination statutes and the IDEA as separate vehicles for protecting the rights of children with disabilities.” 

Experts in education for students with disabilities have echoed Stranch’s conclusion. In an amicus brief, The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates and the National Federation For the Blind said that the district court’s decision disincentivizes parents and schools from quickly coming to a resolution. Another brief from former U.S. Department of Education officials emphasized the distinction between the educational focus of the IDEA and the broader anti-discrimination and reasonable-accommodation requirements of laws like the ADA. If allowed to stand, they wrote, the decision “would have serious negative consequences for the ability of children with disabilities to obtain full relief for past discrimination,” they wrote.

But this isn’t the first time that the Court has contemplated making it even more difficult for people suing for discrimination to win money when doing so. Last term, the Court held in Cummings v. Premier Rehab Keller that damages for emotional stress are not available under the Rehabilitation Act, a related law that prohibits employers from discriminating against people with disabilities. In its briefs, Sturgis argues that under Cummings, Miguel’s claim for emotional distress is “entirely academic”—and, because he didn’t include a request for lost income in his first complaint, that he must go back to the district court and start all over again to obtain that relief. 

As a result of Sturgis’ actions, Miguel’s learning development and earning potential are stunted. He is unable to learn by reading or writing, and will require social work support to live independently. A vocational expert who evaluated Miguel determined that he will never develop the language skills to pursue higher education, and will likely be limited to unskilled labor jobs in the future. 

The education system already failed Miguel Luna Perez. If the Court leaves the Sixth Circuit’s decision in place, the legal system will fail him, too.

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