Unanimous Supreme Court rules in favor of deaf Michigan man

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A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in favor of a 27-year-old Michigan man who is seeking compensatory damages from Sturgis Public Schools for not providing him an appropriate education for more than a decade.

The decision, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, allows Miguel Luna Perez to move forward with his claim in federal court after lower courts had ruled against him, saying the law precluded his case from advancing despite the statute as written by Congress appearing to allow it to do so. "(It) is the not the job of this court to replace the actual text with speculation as to Congress’s intent," Gorsuch wrote.

Miguel Luna Perez, who is deaf and is pictured here in 2016, has a case before the U.S. Supreme Court saying he should be allowed to sue his school in Sturgis, Michigan, for damages for failing to provide him suitable instruction.
Miguel Luna Perez, who is deaf and is pictured here in 2016, has a case before the U.S. Supreme Court saying he should be allowed to sue his school in Sturgis, Michigan, for damages for failing to provide him suitable instruction.

More:Deaf Michigan man: I suffered permanent harm after years of inadequate education

Luna Perez, according to his complaint, was denied regular access to qualified interpreters for 12 years from the time he was 9 despite a recommendation he be taught American Sign Language. His family said Sturgis assigned him an assistant who didn't know sign language herself and claimed the schools inflated his grades such that his Spanish-speaking parents believed he was progressing when he wasn’t.

In his final year, his initial claim said, he couldn’t read or write — but had been listed as an honor roll student for years.

“We are thrilled with today’s decision," said Roman Martinez, the Washington-based lawyer who argued Luna Perez's case before the Supreme Court in January. "The court’s ruling vindicates the rights of students with disabilities to obtain full relief when they suffer discrimination. Miguel and his family look forward to pursuing their legal claims."

Sturgis Public Schools Superintendent Art Ebert, who joined the district after Luna Perez had left to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf in 2016, responded to the decision, telling the Free Press, "I'm a firm believer that every experience gives us the opportunity to learn and grow. Through this, too, we will gain knowledge, insight and understanding that will help us maximize every student's true potential."

Ebert did not directly address any of the claims made by Luna Perez.

The decision was being closely watched by both special education officials across the country — who warned a decision for Luna Perez could result in more lawsuits and less cooperation between parents and educators — and advocates for deaf people and other disabled students and their parents.

At issue was whether, as Sturgis argued, students and parents had to "exhaust" or run through all the procedural hurdles required under one law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) before suing for damages under another law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for compensatory damages. Luna Perez's lawyers argued that since the IDEA doesn't include damages, his settling one claim under that law — as he did with Sturgis in 2018 — didn't preclude his filing for damages for the permanent harm he claimed he suffered for years of neglect.

"Whether (the law) bars lawsuits like ours holds consequences not just for Mr. Perez but for a great many children with disabilities and their parents," Gorsuch wrote. "Because our colleagues on the courts of appeals have disagreed about how best to read the statute, we agreed to take up the question."

Gorsuch wrote that the exhaustion requirement applies only to suits that seek relief also available under the IDEA. "And that condition simply is not met in situations like ours."

It was only months before graduation when Luna Perez and his family learned he wouldn't graduate with his class but would instead receive a certificate of completion. A nonprofit group, Disability Rights Michigan, began to advocate for Luna Perez and he and his family filed a lawsuit against the school district.

In it, they claimed that Luna Perez went through years where he was only able to communicate with the teaching assistant, who the schools expected to learn Signed English by teaching herself through a book. Eventually, the claim said, the assistant and Luna Perez communicated through an idiosyncratic method of signing but he was still unable to fully participate in classes. As such, the lawyers maintained, he learned little: Even though he took biology, he didn’t learn the difference between mammals and reptiles, and even though he took history, he didn’t know what slavery was.

In the 2018 IDEA settlement, the school district agreed to pay to send Luna Perez, then in his 20s, to the Michigan School for the Deaf. But experts told the Free Press that it was likely in a case like Luna Perez's a deaf person would suffer permanent damage to his cognitive skills by being denied appropriate language interaction for so long.

“He wants to have a life where he can make his own decisions," one of his lawyers, Mitchell Sickon, told the Free Press some weeks ago. "Miguel does have feelings like you or I and he does want things for himself, he wants to have a job. (But) He’ll have injuries and limitations for the rest of his life. He can make up some ground and he has, but these kind of opportunities that you have growing up to internalize a language are sort of limited to windows in time.”

Contact Todd Spangler: tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter@tsspangler.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: US Supreme Court rules for deaf Michigan man in case against school