The Supreme Court Reconsiders the IDEA Exhaustion Doctrine

On Wednesday, January 18, 2023, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, a case out of Michigan (Sixth Circuit) involving the administrative exhaustion doctrine under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”)  Before the Court were two important issues: (1) whether parents can avoid having to exhaust their administrative remedies under the IDEA (by filing for and litigating a due process hearing) by asking for monetary damages in a lawsuit brought under a different statute (such as Section 504 or the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)); and (2) whether settling a due process hearing constitutes “exhaustion” of the administrative process, such that parents who have settled with the school could then file a subsequent Section 504 or ADA lawsuit.  Some of these issues – particularly whether asking for monetary damages essentially negates the exhaustion requirement – were left over from the Court’s previous exhaustion decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools.   

As a refresher, the IDEA specifically provides that it does not restrict or limit the rights and remedies available under the ADA or Section 504. But it does require that before filing a civil action under such laws “seeking relief that is also available under [the IDEA],” the IDEA procedures must be exhausted. Although money damages are not available under the IDEA, all circuit courts that have reviewed the issue have found that asking for money damages does not excuse IDEA exhaustion when the claims are related to FAPE (a free appropriate public education).  

In a brief written by Thompson & Horton attorneys on behalf of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, the Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE), and a number of other administrator organizations, we argued that allowing parents to avoid exhausting their administrative remedies by simply pleading for money damages would shift the focus of any disputes from educational services to money, which would severely undercut the collaborative nature of the IDEA process.  Along with the Michigan school district, we suggested that giving parents an alternative avenue for relief focusing on money would make at least some parents less likely to seek educational services through the IEP and/or due process hearing procedures, which ultimately could delay resolution of such disputes (courts are not particularly fast) and thus harm the student’s education.    

The argument at the Court, to be blunt, did not appear to go particularly well for the school district’s position.  The attorney for the student began his argument by saying that the student had done everything that the IDEA required him to do, by requesting a due process hearing and then settling for “everything” that they wanted, and Justice Elena Kagan in particular appeared to agree that it’s “hard for me to see how that’s not true.”  Both the conservative justices and the liberal justices appeared to have concerns about what they perceived to be an exhaustion scheme that, as the circuit courts have interpreted it, has become too aggressive in keeping parents from bringing non-IDEA claims in court arising out of their children’s education. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wanted to know what Congress’ intentions were, particularly with regards to the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act of 1986 and the 1997 amendments to the IDEA, both of which appeared designed to increase a parent’s ability to go straight to court for non-IDEA claims.   

A decision in this case is not expected until late spring or early summer. Because this case could have a significant impact on how parents pursue their various remedies when they are unhappy with how their students are being educated, we will continue to report on the case, and encourage special education administrators to reach out to our team with any questions.