WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed sympathetic to the arguments of a deaf student who sued his public school system for providing an inadequate education, a legal challenge important for other disabled students and their families.
The question for the justices involves a federal law that guarantees disabled students an education specific to their needs. During 90 minutes in the courtroom, liberal and conservative justices suggested they were inclined to rule for the student, Miguel Luna Perez.
His lawyer, Roman Martinez, said that for 12 years, the public school system in Sturgis, Michigan, “neglected Miguel, denied him an education and lied to his parents about the progress he was allegedly making in school.”
“This shameful conduct permanently stunted Miguel’s ability to communicate with the outside world,” Martinez said.
Justice Elena Kagan indicated that she believed the argument that Perez had done “everything right” in pursuing his case.
“It’s hard for me to see how that’s not true. What should Miguel have done differently from what he did do in this case?” Kagan said. The liberal justice suggested to a lawyer for the school system, Shay Dvoretzky, that such cases are pursued “by parents who are trying to do right by their kids.”
Perez, now 27, was in the courtroom. He watched with the assistance of American Sign Language translators and Certified Deaf Interpreters, who can help when a person’s communication skills are limited.
It remains difficult for Perez, who emigrated to the United States from Mexico at age 9, to make himself understood. Perez’s lawyers say the school system failed him by not providing a qualified sign language interpreter. An aide who helped him did not know ASL but tried to teach herself so-called Signed English from a book. She essentially invented a system of signing only she and Perez understood, leaving him unable to communicate with others, his lawyers said.
The school system also mislead his parents into believing he was on track to earn his high school diploma. Just before graduation, however, his family was told he qualified only for a “certificate of completion,” not a diploma.
His family responded by pursuing claims under two laws: the broad Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against disabled people, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The latter guarantees children with disabilities a free public education that is tailored to their specific needs.
Perez’s family and the school district ultimately settled the IDEA claims. The district agreed to pay for extra schooling and sign language instruction for Perez and his family, among other things. The family then went to federal court and, under the ADA, sought monetary damages, which are not available under the IDEA.
Lower courts said the settlement barred Perez from pursuing his ADA claims in federal court. Perez’s lawyers said the 2-1 decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, written by Judge Amul Thapar, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, was out of line with every other federal appeals court that has considered the issue.
Former federal education officials were among those who told the Supreme Court in written briefs that the appeals court’s decision was wrong. The officials said upholding the lower court decisions would hurt children with disabilities by forcing them to choose between immediately getting issues resolved but forfeiting other claims or delaying to try to get fuller relief.
While the IDEA encourages settlements, upholding the lower court decision would force students and their families to “forgo speedy relief and waste time, money and administrative resources” to preserve their other claims, they said. The Biden administration also urged the court to side with Perez.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was among the justices who seemed inclined to agree with Perez. The liberal justice said it was her understanding that “Congress thought that dual actions at least in come circumstances were possible and that was fine.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative, noted that rejecting an IDEA settlement offer means risking not being able to seek attorneys fees. Her fellow conservative, Justice Neil Gorsuch, suggested that the text of the IDEA also supports Perez.
A national school board association and an association of school superintendents were among those who told the court in written briefs that lower courts were right. They said ruling otherwise would weaken the IDEA’s collaborative process to resolve issues and lead to more lengthy and expensive court proceedings.
Perez graduated from the Michigan School for the Deaf in June 2020 with a diploma. He said in a written statement provided with the assistance of an interpreter and a translator that he learned building skills at the school and wants to build houses as a job. His case at the Supreme Court is hard for him to understand, he said, though he understands part of it is “about having no interpreter.”
“I wish I could have gone to college,” he said. “I don’t have a job, but I want to have one. I want to make my own choices.”
A decision in his case, Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, 21-887, is expected by the end of June.