SCOTUS: parents of SPED students can sue districts under ADA

March 22, 2023

A United States Supreme Court decision handed down Tuesday related to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has enormous implications for parents of special education (SPED students and the State of Kansas. 

In a unanimous decision, the high court ruled that a deaf student in Michigan has the right to sue his district for failing to provide him with qualified classroom aides and — despite awarding “inflated grades” — refusing to allow him to graduate.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the student, Miguel Luna Perez, was entitled under federal law to a free public education that met his needs.

Instead of providing a qualified interpreter — as the law requires — Michigan’s Sturgis Public School District assigned aides who were either unqualified (including one who attempted to teach herself sign language) or absent from the classroom for hours on end.

According to the decision, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, from age 9 to 20, the district misrepresented Perez’ educational attainment, awarding him inflated grades and advancing him from grade to grade regardless of real education level.

Shortly before he was to graduate, Perez and his parents were told he would not receive a diploma but rather a  “certificate of completion.”

The parents settled an administrative complaint against the district under IDEA in which the district would pay for his post-secondary education and sign language instruction.

According to the Washington Times, the family then filed a lawsuit in federal court, citing a violation of the ADA and seeking a financial award for violating Perez’s rights because they could not obtain monetary damages under the first complaint.

The district court and the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the district, saying because he settled under IDEA, his other case was barred.

The high court reversed that decision, saying that since the relief he was seeking under the ADA was not available under IDEA, he had every right to sue for monetary damages that administrative procedures under IDEA do not allow.

Implications in Kansas

Attorney Mike O’Neal said the case will have an obvious impact in the Sunflower State.

“The case will certainly have implications in Kansas for special education students,” O’Neal wrote in an email statement. “Procedurally, the case is limited to IDEA, but take a good look at the facts presented: for years, the Sturgis public school assigned aides who were either unqualified or absent for hours on end. The parents allege Perez’ educational progress was misrepresented by the school, awarding him inflated grades and advancing him from grade to grade regardless of progress. The parents were led to believe their son was on track to graduate. They complain because at the 11th hour, the school denied their son a diploma. However, they would likely have had a cause of action had a worthless diploma been awarded. These facts mirror what is happening in public schools all over, whether involving special ed students or not.”

Under federal law, students with disabilities must have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP” that spells out what additional help a student is to receive — such as an interpreter, time with a paraprofessional educator, speech therapy, or other services — that the district is bound by law to provide.

Districts are often reluctant to provide the full range of services a student might need because of the added costs involved, 40% of which are supposed to be reimbursed by the federal government.  Legislators say federal funding has only covered about 15% of the costs, resulting in a shortfall of about $300 million that the state has to make up.

Tuesday’s ruling related to ADA clears the way for parents to sue if districts fail to follow an IEP.

Mike O’Neal said the ruling is important because in addition to federal law, the Kansas Constitution enshrines a right to an appropriate education and the right to sue for redress.

“In Kansas, Section 18 of the Kansas Bill of Rights in the Kansas Constitution provides that ‘All persons, for injuries suffered in person, reputation or property, shall have remedy by due course of law, and justice administered without delay,’” O’Neal said. “The Court in Perez found “remedy” to be synonymous with the term “relief” in the Code of Civil Procedure. Also, a plurality of the Kansas Supreme Court has found there to be a fundamental constitutional right to a public education in Kansas. It is unlikely the Court intended that promise to be an empty one.”

Dyslexia, which is considered a learning disability under the ADA, could again come under scrutiny in Kansas. Parents of children with dyslexia in at least two Kansas school districts – USD 229 Blue Valley and USD 233 Olathe – have struggled to get services for their children in the past.