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Exhausting IDEA Administrative Remedies Is Not Required When Seeking Compensatory Relief

In the case of Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Schools, 143 S.Ct. 859, 215 L.Ed.2d 95 (2023), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a plaintiff is not required to exhaust the administrative process set forth in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) when the plaintiff is seeking relief that the IDEA cannot supply under other federal antidiscrimination statutes, such as compensatory relief under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”).

At issue in this case, is the IDEA’s rule of construction provision (20 U.S.C. §1415(l)), which contains two principal features — i.e., (1) a general rule that nothing in the IDEA shall be construed to restrict the ability to seek “remedies” under federal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities and (2) a restriction to this general rule that prohibits the filing of any civil action seeking “remedies” under such federal laws until after the IDEA’s administrative process has been exhausted when such “remedies” are also available under the IDEA.

In this case, a disabled student argued that the student was not required to exhaust the IDEA’s administrative process as the student was not seeking relief under the ADA that is available under the IDEA — i.e., after the disabled student settled all equitable relief sought against a school board, including additional schooling, through the IDEA administrative process, the student then filed a federal lawsuit under the ADA seeking compensatory relief. In response, while the school board agreed that compensatory relief is not available under the IDEA, the school board nonetheless argued that the disabled student was first required to exhaust the IDEA’s administrative process as the student was pursuing relief under the ADA for the same underlying harm the IDEA exists to address — i.e., the school board argued that the law bars a federal lawsuit under the ADA seeking compensatory relief flowing from the school board’s alleged harm under the IDEA after the disabled student settled all equitable relief the student sought against a school board rather than exhausting the IDEA’s administrative process. While both the federal district and appellate courts agreed with the school board, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the disabled student.

In support of its decision in favor of the disabled student, the U.S. Supreme Court explained that a plaintiff is only required to exhaust the IDEA’s administrative process when the plaintiff is seeking the same relief or remedy that is also available under the IDEA and that condition simply is not met in situations like the instant case, where a plaintiff brings a suit under another federal law for compensatory damages — a form of relief all parties agreed the IDEA does not provide.

NOTE: The settlement agreement executed between the disabled student and school board during the IDEA administrative process did not include compensation for the loss of the student’s ADA claims or a resolution of those claims along with the IDEA claims, but it could have.

CAUTION: The U.S. Supreme Court specifically refused to address either whether the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement is susceptible to a judge-made futility exception or whether the compensatory damages the disabled student seeks in the ADA lawsuit are, in fact, available under that statute.

To read this case, click here.

To read our prior blog entitled, “SCOTUS to Determine IDEA Exhaustion Issues,” click here.

Authors: Matthew John Markling and the McGown & Markling Team.

Note: This blog entry does not constitute – nor does it contain – legal advice. Legal jurisprudence is like the always-changing Midwestern weather. As a result, this single blog entry cannot substitute for consultation with a McGown & Markling attorney. If legal advice is needed with respect to a specific factual situation, please feel free to contact a McGown & Markling attorney.

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