By Sabra Anckner, RN, MSN, Associate Director, Clinical & Community Collaboration, Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs (AMCHP)
Occasionally, AMCHP will recap Supreme Court decisions that impact the maternal and child health community. These summaries are not legal advice, and the author is not a lawyer.
Luna Perez v Sturgis Public Schools explores whether a student who settles a claim against their school district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) retains the right to seek monetary compensation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Court ruled unanimously in favor of the student.
Miguel Luna Perez is a Deaf young man who attended Sturgis Public Schools in Michigan from age 9. Throughout his 11 years in the school district, he was only sometimes provided with classroom aides — none of whom knew American Sign Language (ASL) or were properly trained to assist with Miguel’s needs. Miguel received no ASL instruction. His family was told over the years that Miguel was progressing well, and he was promoted from grade to grade. However, as Miguel got close to his expected graduation date, the school surprised his parents when they informed them that Miguel would not be receiving a diploma.
Legal Rights and Process
His parents sought legal advice, at which point the family learned that Miguel had a right to a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) under IDEA, and this right had been woefully ignored. The family proceeded with a lawsuit under IDEA for “forward-looking” relief—to ensure Miguel could obtain a FAPE. They also pursued “backward-looking” relief under the ADA. The latter included monetary damages for the years of lost opportunity.
IDEA cases are heard through administrative courts, typically by judges who specialize in educational matters. They discuss any concerns about whether or not the student is receiving a FAPE, and they identify remedies as quickly as possible if educational deficiencies are found. The process is collaborative, and families and schools are incentivized to settle rather than having a judge make the decision.
Sturgis Public Schools and the Luna Perez family came to an agreement. The district was required to fund Miguel’s attendance at the Michigan School for the Deaf, classes in ASL for Miguel and his family, and other support that should have been provided from the time Miguel enrolled in Sturgis Public Schools. However, the administrative judge dismissed the ADA claim because that court did not have jurisdiction to hear it. When the family refiled the ADA claim, the federal district court and the appeals court dismissed the claim for technical reasons. The ADA has an “exhaustion” requirement, meaning that students must complete the full IDEA process before they can make an ADA claim for the same or similar relief. The school district argued that by settling, Miguel’s family had not exhausted all their options under IDEA—although the settlement provided them with all the relief they had been seeking. The family also argued that the relief they sought under the ADA—monetary compensation—is not available under IDEA anyway.
Supreme Court Involvement and Ruling
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, after having ruled on a similar but not identical case in 2017, at which time they specifically did not address this issue. Since then, there has been a “circuit split,” in which different appellate courts around the country have ruled in opposite ways—at times for the school district, and at other times for students. After hearing oral arguments in January, the Court ruled 9-0 in favor of Miguel. Written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the ruling allows for Miguel’s ADA claim to be heard in the district court.
The Ruling’s Significance and Implications for Children and Youth with Special Health Care Needs (CYSHCN), Students with Disabilities, and their Families
This ruling has significance for CYSHCN, students with disabilities, and their families. The ruling should give families confidence in advocating for their child to receive a FAPE when they have been denied one. Families should also feel confident about their right to receive damages for the impacts of discrimination if the ADA is violated by schools.
The case of Luna Perez v Sturgis presents a complex intersectionality of disability and race/ethnicity, language, and immigration status. Miguel’s family immigrated to the United States from Mexico, and his parents’ primary language is Spanish. They did not understand that Miguel was entitled to FAPE, and for more than a decade, no one in the school district sought to provide the required services to Miguel as both an English language learner and a Deaf student. This neglect hampered Miguel’s ability to communicate in any language, at home, at school, at work, and in his community. Failure to address his rights and needs also delayed his transition from adolescence to the adult world.
Title V and CYSHCN programs and their community-based and family-led partners can collaborate to make sure students with disabilities and their families can access the public educational services to which they are entitled. And when the system does not work, students like Miguel can now pursue their legal rights through both the IDEA and ADA.
 In their legal filings, Miguel Luna Perez’s attorneys refer to Miguel by his first name; the author follows their lead.