Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Sch.

Decision Date25 June 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20-1076,20-1076
Citation3 F.4th 236
Parties Miguel Luna PEREZ, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. STURGIS PUBLIC SCHOOLS; Sturgis Public Schools Board of Education, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

ARGUED: Ellen Saideman, LAW OFFICE OF ELLEN SAIDEMAN, Barrington, Rhode Island, for Appellant. Kenneth B. Chapie, GIARMARCO, MULLINS & HORTON, P.C., Troy, Michigan, for Appellees. ON BRIEF: Ellen Saideman, LAW OFFICE OF ELLEN SAIDEMAN, Barrington, Rhode Island, Mitchell Sickon, MIGHIGAN PROTECTION AND ADVOCACY SERVICE, INC., Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant. Kenneth B. Chapie, GIARMARCO, MULLINS & HORTON, P.C., Troy, Michigan, for Appellees. Catherine Merino Reisman, REISMAN CAROLLA GRAN & ZUBA LLP, Haddonfield, New Jersey, for Amicus Curiae.

Before: BOGGS, STRANCH, and THAPAR, Circuit Judges.

THAPAR, J., delivered the opinion of the court in which BOGGS, J., joined. STRANCH, J. (pp. 245–54), delivered a separate dissenting opinion.

THAPAR, Circuit Judge.

Miguel Perez claims that his school district failed to provide him with an appropriate education. He brought his claim in the proper administrative forum, but he settled with the school before the process had run its course. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the decision to settle means that Perez is barred from bringing a similar case against the school in court—even under a different federal law. The district court dismissed the case, and we affirm.

I.

Miguel Perez is a 23-year-old deaf student in Michigan. When he was nine, he emigrated from Mexico and started going to school in the Sturgis Public School District. Since Perez is deaf, the school assigned him a classroom aide—but the aide was not trained to work with deaf students and did not know sign language.

Still, Perez appeared to progress academically. His teachers gave him As or Bs in nearly every class, and he was on the Honor Roll every semester. So Perez and his parents assumed he was on track to earn a high-school diploma. But just months before graduation, the school informed the family that Perez did not qualify for a diploma—he was eligible for only a "certificate of completion."

Perez filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education. He alleged that Sturgis denied him an adequate education and violated federal and state disability laws: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act, and two Michigan disabilities laws. The school moved to dismiss the ADA claims and the Rehabilitation Act claims, and one state-law claim for lack of jurisdiction. The administrative law judge granted the motion and scheduled a hearing on the IDEA claim.

Before the hearing, the parties settled. As part of the settlement, the school agreed to pay for Perez to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf, for any "post-secondary compensatory education," and for sign language instruction for Perez and his family. It also paid the family's attorney's fees. The ALJ dismissed the case with prejudice.

A few months later, Perez sued Sturgis Public Schools and the Sturgis Board of Education in federal court. He brought one ADA claim and one claim under Michigan law. This time, Perez alleged that the school discriminated against him by not providing the resources necessary for him to fully participate in class. Along with declaratory relief, Perez sought compensatory damages for his emotional distress.

Sturgis moved to dismiss the case. It said that the IDEA required Perez to complete certain administrative procedures before bringing an ADA claim. And it argued that because Perez did not follow those procedures—Perez settled his IDEA claim before it was adjudicated—the IDEA barred Perez's suit. The district court agreed. It dismissed the ADA claim for failure to exhaust and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law claim. Perez appealed.

II.
A.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, children with disabilities have a right to a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE). 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1). To that end, public schools must provide educational services tailored to disabled children's individual needs. Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas Cnty. Sch. Dist. RE-1 , ––– U.S. ––––, 137 S. Ct. 988, 993, 999, 197 L.Ed.2d 335 (2017).

Sometimes a school falls short. When that happens, parents can seek redress through the IDEA. The IDEA encourages informal conflict resolution, but it provides for increasingly formal mechanisms if a disagreement persists. First, the parents file a complaint with the school and meet with school officials. If the parties can't agree, either party can request mediation. Finally, if that doesn't work, the parents are entitled to a full hearing before an impartial "hearing officer." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(f). The hearing officer's job is to decide whether the student is receiving a "free appropriate public education." Id. § 1415(f)(3)(E). Either the state or the local school district can conduct the hearing. In the latter case, the losing party may appeal the ruling to the state. Id. § 1415(f)(1)(A), (g).

Once the state has had its say, the administrative process is over. There remains one last option for aggrieved parents: a lawsuit in federal or state court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A).

Some parents would rather not trudge through an administrative process before coming to court. But federal law requires parents to complete the IDEA's administrative process before bringing any suit under federal law that concerns the "denial of a free appropriate public education." This requirement includes even parents who forgo their IDEA claims and sue under another statute: Parents must first "exhaust[ ]" the IDEA's administrative procedures "to the same extent as would be required had the action been brought under [the IDEA]." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l ).

That may seem strange—since when do we graft exhaustion requirements from one law onto another? We usually don't. But the provision is not a conventional exhaustion requirement: It doesn't require Perez to exhaust his ADA claim before bringing it to court. Instead, it requires him to exhaust his corresponding IDEA claim. So Perez can sue under "other [f]ederal laws protecting the rights of children with disabilities"—including the ADA—but he must first complete the IDEA's full administrative process. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l ). If he gives up his IDEA claim, he also gives up his right to "seek[ ] relief for the denial of an appropriate education" under other federal laws. Fry v. Napoleon Cmty. Schs. , ––– U.S. ––––, 137 S. Ct. 743, 755, 197 L.Ed.2d 46 (2017).

So what does this mean for Perez? He did not forgo his IDEA claim altogether, but he settled it before completing the administrative process. (And the negotiations for that settlement could have included compensation for the loss of his other claims.) Does this failure bar his current lawsuit? That depends on three questions: Is his case subject to the IDEA's exhaustion provision? If so, has Perez exhausted the IDEA's administrative procedures to the extent necessary? And if he has not, should we allow his suit to proceed anyway?

B.

Any lawsuit is subject to the IDEA's exhaustion provision if it "seek[s] relief that is also available under [the IDEA]." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l ). When interpreting that provision, the Supreme Court has told us to look beyond the surface of the pleadings and ask: Is the crux of the complaint the denial of a free appropriate public education? Fry , 137 S. Ct. at 755 ; id. at 757 (describing the key as whether the complaint's "essence—even though not its wording—is the provision of a [free appropriate public education]"). If so, the exhaustion requirement should apply.

1.

The crux of Perez's complaint is that he was denied an adequate education. Perez says that the school's failures denied him "meaningful access to the classroom or any other Sturgis activities," kept him from "access[ing] his education," and kept him from "participat[ing] and benefit[ting] from classroom instruction." R. 10, Pg. ID 115–19. He also says the school "misrepresented [his] academic achievement" by awarding him grades that "did not in any way reflect the education he was receiving." Id. at 119. Those grades, he says, "masked the fact that [he] was learning nothing in his classes due to the absence of a qualified sign language interpreter." Id. All the while, "[Perez] and his parents believed that [he] had been receiving meaningful communication access to his classes," such that he would "graduat[e] with a regular high school diploma in ... 2016 and [go] to college thereafter." Id. at 120. But it wasn't true. And Perez was understandably distressed to learn that he was years behind where he should have been. In short, Perez alleges that the school denied him an appropriate education and papered over the deficiencies.

Fry offers two questions as a "clue" when it is hard to determine whether a claim is fundamentally about the denial of an education. The two questions are: Could the plaintiff have brought "essentially the same claim" against a different kind of public facility, like a public theater or a library? Fry , 137 S. Ct. at 756–57. And could an adult at the school, like an employee or a visitor, have "pressed essentially the same grievance"? Id.

Here, the answer to both questions is no. As the complaint says, Perez and his parents believed that he was receiving "meaningful communication access to his classes." R. 10, Pg. ID 120. The problem is that—unbeknownst to him—his education wasn't up to snuff. He thought he was progressing adequately and would graduate on time. But because the school failed to provide him with the educational services he needed, he was not. Given that everything in Perez's complaint points to a "focus on the adequacy of [his] education," he could not bring...

To continue reading

Request your trial
28 cases
  • S.B. by and through M.B. v. Lee
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Tennessee
    • October 12, 2021
    ...a ‘free appropriate public education’ " and "concerns the ‘denial of a free appropriate public education.’ " Perez v. Sturgis Public Schs. , 3 F.4th 236, 239, 240 (6th Cir. 2021) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 412(a)(1)). According to Governor Lee, the Court lacks jurisdiction over Plaintiffs’ claims......
  • Wesco Ins. Co. v. Roderick Linton Belfance, LLP
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit
    • July 1, 2022
    ...to raise their concerns and, if that process fails, a cause of action to obtain judicial relief. Id. § 1415; Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Schs. , 3 F.4th 236, 239 (6th Cir. 2021). To encourage lawyers to take these cases, the Act gives district courts discretion to award attorney's fees to prevail......
  • S.B. v. Lee
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Tennessee
    • October 12, 2021
    ...before bringing suit in federal court for “the denial of a free appropriate public education, ” often referred to as “FAPE, ” Perez, 3 F.4th at 240 (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 412(a)(1)), he does not the Court that the IDEA's exhaustion requirement applies in this case. The relevant portion of the......
  • Simpson-Vlach v. Mich. Dep't of Educ.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Michigan
    • July 22, 2022
    ... ... Court case called Sch. Comm. of Town of Burlington, Mass ... v. Dep't of Educ. of Mass ... causation. Pub. Interest Research Grp. of N.J., Inc. v ... Powell Duffryn ... s3795987.pdf; see Perez, Next Friend of Perez v. Sturgis ... Pub. Schs., No. 1: 18-cv-1134, ... ...
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 firm's commentaries
  • Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools: Supreme Court Narrows IDEA Exhaustion Requirement
    • United States
    • LexBlog United States
    • March 29, 2023
    ...lawsuit sought relief for alleged harm, specifically the denial of FAPE, that is available under the IDEA. Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Schs., 3 F.4th 236 (6th Cir. 2021). The Sixth Circuit held that the statutory language establishing exhaustion under the IDEA (providing that exhaustion through a......
  • Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools: Supreme Court Narrows IDEA Exhaustion Requirement
    • United States
    • Mondaq United States
    • April 11, 2023
    ...lawsuit sought relief for alleged harm, specifically the denial of FAPE, that is available under the IDEA. Perez v. Sturgis Pub. Schs., 3 F.4th 236 (6th Cir. 2021). The Sixth Circuit held that the statutory language establishing exhaustion under the IDEA (providing that exhaustion through a......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT