Deaf student neglected by Michigan schools should be able to sue under anti-discrimination law, SCOTUS hears

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A public school system in Michigan wronged a deaf student by failing to properly educate him, and the student was justified in suing the system under two federal laws, the Supreme Court heard on Jan. 18.

The hearing came as parents nationwide have become increasingly protective of the rights of their children and are taking legal action and demanding accountability from government officials. Among other things, parents in other cases say public schools have lost their focus on properly educating students and are spending inordinate resources on trendy projects such as critical race theory and gender identity education.

At issue were two federal laws, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides that disabled students must be educated according to their specific needs, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which forbids discrimination against disabled individuals.

Deaf student Miguel Luna Perez, now 27, is the petitioner in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, court file 21-887. The Biden administration argued in support of Perez at the hearing and some educational organizations filed briefs supporting his position.

His attorney, Roman Martinez, said Perez immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 9 years old, and that the public schools of Sturgis, Michigan, hindered his education by failing to give him a qualified sign language interpreter. A school employee who was not familiar with American Sign Language improvised a signing system but the two people were the only ones who understood it, which made it hard for Perez to communicate with anyone else.

The school system allegedly deceived Perez’s parents, leading them to think he was on his way to be awarded a high school diploma but when it came time to graduate they were informed he would be given a “certificate of completion,” as opposed to a diploma.

The family sued and eventually settled the claims under the IDEA. Sturgis schools agreed to provide additional educational instruction to Perez, along with sign language lessons for him and his family.

The family then sued under the ADA for monetary damages which the IDEA did not provide for. Courts said the family couldn’t seek ADA damages.

During oral arguments Jan. 18, Martinez told the justices Sturgis schools “neglected” Perez for 12 years, “denied him an education, and lied to his parents about the progress he was allegedly making in school.”

“This shameful conduct permanently stunted Miguel’s ability to communicate with the outside world. It also violated two federal statutes, the IDEA and the ADA, giving different remedies to victims of discrimination,” the lawyer said.

“Miguel responded by doing everything the IDEA wants him to do. He filed an IDEA agency claim. He followed the IDEA settlement procedures. And he accepted a favorable settlement giving him full IDEA relief … ”

But Sturgis argues the IDEA settlement “extinguishes Miguel’s separate and distinct rights to money damages under the ADA,” Martinez said.

Justice Clarence Thomas said he was having difficulty seeing how “ADA fits in with IDEA.”

Martinez replied:

“A hundred percent, Your Honor. And I think that’s exactly the right way to think about the statute. And I think what Congress was trying to do here was essentially say we want you to have rights under both statutes; we want you to be able to go into court if necessary and vindicate your separate rights to separate types of relief under both statutes.”

It is the “bottom-line position” of Sturgis that if “they did everything right, they accepted the [IDEA] settlement, they lose their ADA claims. That just can’t be right,” the attorney said.

Justice Elena Kagan said Perez had done “everything right” in attempting to vindicate his rights.

“What should Miguel have done differently from what he did do in this case?” Kagan said to school system attorney Shay Dvoretzky.

Dvoretzky said a plaintiff could negotiate an appropriate settlement for non-IDEA claims or proceed to court, assuming the other party was willing to waive the requirement that the plaintiff exhaust remaining administrative remedies.

“So there were options as part of that global settlement to get the full relief he was asking for,” the lawyer said.

Kagan responded: “Now, Sturgis was not, for all we know, offering any of those things. So what’s he supposed to do?”

Dvoretzky replied: “Negotiate. I mean, as in all settlements.”

Kagan was incensed.

“Better … negotiate better. Just pound his fist on the table with your legal rule, such that Sturgis doesn’t have to offer any of those things because … he has two choices.  He can either reject a good settlement, which is enabling him to receive educational services, or give up on the potential, which this statute clearly gives him of getting compensatory damages as well under the ADA,” Kagan said.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said she didn’t see a problem with suing under the two statutes. “Congress thought that dual actions at least in some circumstances were possible and that was fine,” she said.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue an opinion in the case by June.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared Jan. 18, 2023, in The Epoch Times.

Photo: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas