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Legal Docket: Rights for people with disabilities


WORLD Radio - Legal Docket: Rights for people with disabilities

A Supreme Court case deals with what a student who is deaf must do to get what he is entitled to under the law

Light illuminates part of the Supreme Court building at dusk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022 Associated Press Photo/Patrick Semansky

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Monday morning, February 6th and you’re listening to The World and Everything in It from WORLD Radio. So glad you’re here! Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. It’s time for Legal Docket. Today, we cover two oral arguments heard last month by the US Supreme Court.

First, the case of Miguel Perez, now a 27 year old man. He’s been deaf since birth, the youngest of 9 children. When he was age 9, he and his family moved from Mexico to a small town in southwest Michigan called Sturgis.

Miguel Perez had no formal education in Mexico, so he arrived in the United States unable to read or write or communicate in sign language.

REICHARD: Sturgis public school created an individualized education plan and assigned him a classroom aide. But the aide didn’t know sign language. Instead, she came up with a signing system that only the two of them could understand.

A quick word about journalistic style before moving ahead. Typically, we refer in subsequent references to people simply by their last name. In the Supreme Court oral argument, the justices and the lawyers referred to Miguel Perez by his first name, so we’ll also do that today, just to keep consistent with them and not confuse you.

Representing Miguel at the high court is attorney Roman Martinez:

MARTINEZ: For 12 years, Sturgis 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. It also violated two federal statutes, the I-D-E-A and the A-D-A, giving different remedies to victims of discrimination.

Let’s define some terms: I-D-E-A is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. A-D-A is the Americans with Disabilities Act. It guarantees a free public education to children with disabilities, specific to each child’s individual needs.

EICHER: The year after Miguel left high school, the family filed a complaint with the state of Michigan. They claimed that the school district violated the I-D-E-A and the A-D-A, among other laws.

So Miguel’s family settled on the I-D-E-A claim. The school district, Sturgis, agreed to certain terms: paying Miguel’s tuition to attend a school for the deaf, among other things. He graduated four years later from that school in 2020, after he’d acquired some communication skills.

REICHARD: But those were equitable damages. Meaning, the school was required to remediate Miguel’s education. It wasn’t money damages paid to Miguel for emotional distress and the economic harm to him. And that’s what he wants now.

Shay Dvoretzky argued on behalf of Sturgis Public Schools. He said whether Miguel can get around the plain language of the law depends upon how the court interprets the word “relief.” You’re going to hear Dvoretzky mention an acronym: FAPE. It means free, appropriate, public, education. F-A-P-E, FAPE.

DVORETZKY: Congress carefully crafted those procedures, and it wanted parents and school districts to go through them because of the primacy of a FAPE.

EICHER: Dvortetzky pointed to language that required Miguel to finish out the administrative process under the I-D-E-A. Even if that takes years of hearings that can never wind up with money damages, which is what Miguel seeks.

Dvortetzky’s argument is this: If he didn’t want to go through the proper procedures, then Miguel should have rejected the settlement and proceeded to get a final administrative decision on the merits of his I-D-E-A claim. Only then could he go to federal trial court under his A-D-A claim.

Again, Miguel’s lawyer, Martinez.

MARTINEZ: Miguel responded by doing everything the IDEA wants him to do. He filed an IDEA agency claim. He followed the IDEA settlement procedures. And he accepted a favorable settlement giving him full IDEA relief, including an immediate FAPE. Sturgis wants you to hold that this settlement extinguishes Miguel's separate and distinct rights to money damages under the ADA. You should reject that.

REICHARD: Dvoretzky for Sturgis Public Schools didn’t seem to have the sympathies of the justices. Listen to his exchange with Justice Elena Kagan:

KAGAN: What should Miguel have done differently from what he did do in this case?

DVORETZKY: I think a plaintiff in that situation has several options. One is, as part of the settlement, to negotiate whatever compensation he thinks he's entitled to for his non-IDEA claims. Another is to negotiate as part of the settlement a waiver from the school of the exhaustion requirement and then proceed to court. So there were options as part of that global settlement to get the full relief he was asking for.

KAGAN: But you know, Sturgis was not, for all we know, offering any of those things. So what's he supposed to do?

DVORETZKY: Negotiate, I mean, as in all settlements.

KAGAN: Better – negotiate better. Just pound his fist on the table with your legal rule such that Sturgis doesn't have to offer any of those things because he can't -- he has two choices. He can either reject a good settlement which is enabling him to receive educational services or give up on the potential, which this statute clearly gives him, of getting compensatory damages as well under the ADA.

Justice Samuel Alito wondered whether cost is a limiting factor in all this. Here’s an exchange with lawyer Anthony Yang, who argued in support of Miguel on behalf of the federal government.

ALITO: Well, does the – does the ADA -- does the ADA require a school to provide auxiliary aids regardless of the cost?

YANG: Does the ADA?

ALITO: Yes, the --

YANG: No, because there is a -- there is an exception for substantial burden, financial or administrative burden.

The justices need to clear up confusion about administrative rules. Families want their children with disabilities to be properly educated, without having to navigate an incomprehensible agency system.

EICHER: Well, on to our last case today.

This dispute involves the labor union that represents millions of employees of the federal government. It’s called the American Federation of Government Employees, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

The Ohio National Guard had a collective bargaining agreement with the union for nearly half a century. The union represented a hybrid of federal civilian employees called technicians. They work for state guard units but are paid by the federal government.

Eventually, labor talks between the Guard and the union failed. And so for awhile they operated under terms of an expired contract. Then four years ago, the Guard announced it would no longer abide by terms of that expired agreement or—crucially—they would no longer collect union dues.

REICHARD: The union complained to the federal agency that oversees these matters, the Federal Labor Relations Authority. It decided the Guard failed to negotiate in good faith.

But the Guard disputes the agency’s authority. Listen to its lawyer, Benjamin Flowers. He’ll mention “adjutant general.” That’s the Guard’s commander.

FLOWERS: The Reform Act defines agencies to include executive departments, government corporations, and independent establishments. Adjutants General and state Guards are none of these things.

The feds regulate state officers, he argued, but that doesn’t transform state officers into federal ones.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wasn’t buying that argument.

SOTOMAYOR: I think, most importantly, under Article I, military matters are left to the executive, and we should be doing very little to interfere in that process.

Lawyer for the union, Andres Grajales, argued the Guard should take its grievance up with Congress:

GRAJALES: Ultimately, this is a policy disagreement that Ohio can take to Congress, but Congress, as it stands today, understood the matter to be settled. They understood Adjutant General[s] and the state National Guards to be covered.

The justices have to decide the contours of the various state guard units in relationship to the federal government.

And that’s this week’s Legal Docket!

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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