On March 21, 2023, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling that could significantly impact how special education claims against public school districts are litigated.

In Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, the Court unanimously ruled that parents of students with disabilities seeking compensatory damages (i.e., monetary damages) from public school districts may initiate legal proceedings in court without first exhausting their administrative remedies, which in New York requires participating in the impartial hearing process and, if necessary, perfecting an appeal with the Office of State Review. The Court’s decision was based on its interpretation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (”IDEA”) exhaustion requirement for parents of students with disabilities seeking relief from public school districts.  See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l).

The Supreme Court most recently addressed the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement in 2017 when it issued Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools, 580 U.S. 154 (2017). In Fry, the Court considered whether the parent of a student with a disability may bring a discrimination claim directly to court without first exhausting all available administrative remedies, including the initiation of an impartial due process hearing. The Court ruled a parent may indeed bring a claim directly to federal court, but only if the claim does not allege the denial of a free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”) or does not involve the adequacy of the student’s program or services.

As a result, under Fry, parents have been able to bring non-FAPE-related claims, such as discrimination claims under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, directly to court without exhausting their administrative remedies.

The Perez decision further expanded the range of claims exempt from the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement. In Perez, the Court painstakingly reviewed the text of the IDEA statute and determined FAPE-related claims seeking relief available under the IDEA (e.g., tuition reimbursement, compensatory educational services) are subject to the exhaustion requirement, while claims seeking compensatory damages (i.e., monetary damages) are not.

As a result, parents of students with disabilities seeking monetary damages from school districts may proceed directly to court, without exhausting their administrative remedies, even if their claims are based on an alleged FAPE denial.

There are several factors, however, that may discourage parents from going directly to court:

  1. Unlike the impartial hearing process, which is subject to tight timelines, court litigation often lasts years; so this may not be a desirable course of action for litigants seeking prompt relief. 
  2. Parents who go directly to court will be unable to pursue relief available under the IDEA, including compensatory educational services and tuition reimbursement. Presumably, many parents will not be comfortable forgoing such relief. 
  3. The burden of proof for parents seeking monetary damages will be higher than demonstrating a FAPE denial. To prevail on a claim for monetary damages, parents will need to prove school personnel intentionally discriminated against their child or were deliberately indifferent to their child’s needs. In many instances, it will be difficult for parents to meet such a high burden of proof.

Harris Beach’s Education Team will closely monitor the impact of the Perez decision, including the extent to which parents choose to initiate FAPE-related court litigation without first availing themselves to the impartial hearing and state-level appeal process. The group of attorneys pays close attention to special education legal issues. If you have any questions about the matters in this legal alert or any other related legal matters, please reach out to attorney Jeffrey J. Weiss at (716) 200-5141 and jweiss@harrisbeach.com; attorney Anne M. McGinnis at (585) 419-8613 and amcginnis@harrisbeach.com; attorney Andrew R. Mark at (716) 200-5263 and amark@harrisbeach.com, attorney Howard J. Goldsmith at (518) 701-2736 and hgoldsmith@harrisbeach.com; or to the Harris Beach attorney with whom you most frequently work.