Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools: A Win for the Disability Community

April 12, 2023 BY ABBY ALEPA

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On March 21, 2023, The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously voted to allow Miguel Luna Perez, a deaf student in Michigan, to sue his school district for failing to provide an adequate education.

The government’s decision shows support for students with disabilities; students should feel confident about advocating for themselves and taking legal action to address educational barriers.

Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools

Petitioner Miguel Luna Perez was a student in Michigan’s Sturgis Public School District from ages 9 through 20. Throughout his time at Sturgis schools, Perez was assigned ASL interpreters who didn’t know sign language or were not present in the classroom. Perez and his family were also misled about his educational progress—the initial claim stated that Perez had been on the honor roll for years even though he couldn’t read or write by the age of 20.

Despite his apparent honor roll status, Perez and his family were informed only months before graduation that he didn’t qualify for a high school diploma. This prompted them to file a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education, alleging that Sturgis violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by failing to provide Perez with a free and appropriate public education.

The parties reached a settlement in which Sturgis agreed to provide the relief Perez sought, including additional schooling at the Michigan School for the Deaf. After settling the complaint, Perez sought compensatory damages by filing his lawsuit in federal court under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Sturgis moved to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that an IDEA provision barred Perez from bringing an ADA claim without first exhausting all of the IDEA’s administrative dispute-resolution procedures.

The district court agreed with Sturgis and dismissed the suit. The Supreme Court, however, sided with Perez and unanimously ruled that Perez can sue for alleged disability discrimination under the ADA.

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The Ruling’s Implications

In the words of Justice Neil Gorsuch, this ruling “holds consequences not just for Perez but for a great many children with disabilities and their parents.”

There is certainly no shortage of ADA lawsuits in the U.S.—2022 alone saw 8,694 ADA Title III lawsuits in federal courts. This case, however, stands out.

A Message to Students with Disabilities

Accessibility laws and guidelines are notoriously vague and difficult to navigate. The Perez ruling provides some clarity by sending a clear message: students can sue a school for damages under the ADA when they haven’t exhausted the administrative process required by the IDEA.

Following the Court’s ruling, students or families seeking monetary relief based on legislation other than the IDEA can go to court without going through the administrative process of the IDEA. This makes taking legal action related to accessible education much easier. The Supreme Court has signaled that students with disabilities should feel empowered to fight for complete relief when they face discrimination.

Unanimous Support for Students with Disabilities

The accessibility legal landscape is impacted by the country’s political climate. Former President Trump’s proposed 2021 budget included multiple initiatives that posed a potential threat to members of the disability community, including making cuts to funding for disability-focused programs. A Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee approved a 2017 bill called the ADA Education and Reform Act that makes it more difficult for disabled people to sue for discrimination. This legislation has been introduced in different iterations before, but President Obama was prepared to veto it.

The attitude towards accessibility has dramatically shifted during President Biden’s time in the White House; the Biden Administration has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to equal access for all Americans. Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools is a reinforcement of this trend, and the unanimous decision shows that liberal and conservative Justices can come to a resounding agreement on matters of textual language, in this case regarding the terms of the IDEA.

Looking Ahead

The Luna Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools case reinforces the legal requirement for educational institutions to ensure that their content is accessible to individuals with disabilities, including those who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing. This means that institutions must provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services, such as closed captions or transcripts for video content and ASL interpreters, to ensure effective communication and access for individuals with disabilities.

The ruling represents disabled students’ ability to take action when they’re not getting the educational experience to which they’re entitled.

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