This article originally appeared in Minnesota Lawyer, under the title “Minnesota High School Hockey League Lands in Penalty Box.” It’s included here with the permission of its author, Barbara L. Jones.
The importance of high school hockey to Minnesotans can hardly be overstated, but infrequently does a player’s attempt to put the Minnesota State High School League in the penalty box end up in federal court.
The player scored. In W.D.et al. v. Minnesota State High School League et al. District Court Judge John Tunheim granted a temporary restraining order barring the Minnesota State High School League from declaring a student ineligible to play hockey for Lakeville North High School.He said that on a motion for a preliminary injunction the court is only required to make a preliminary assessment of plaintiffs’ chances for success. He continued by saying that the plaintiffs had demonstrated a probability of success on a procedural due process claim under 42 U.S.C. and that the student would suffer irreparable harm in the absence of relief.
Tunheim cited a 2011 decision by Judge Patrick Schiltz, J.K. ex rel. Kaplan v. Minneapolis Pub. Sch., which said that there is a “strong argument that, under Minnesota law, [the] property interest in an education extends to participation in interscholastic sports.”
The W.D. case has settled, and the league agreed to allow W.D. to be eligible to play, so no new law will develop from Tunheim’s order. But it provides interesting caselaw for future athletes. Additionally, the league will try to make its bylaws more clear, as Tunheim suggested, said St. Paul attorney Joseph Kelly, who represented the high school league.
The puck dropped when W.D. transferred from the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield to Lakeville North for academic reasons and believed that he would be immediately eligible for varsity hockey. The league instead said that he would be ineligible for a year.
Ordinarily, under the league’s rules, a student is ineligible for varsity athletics for one year from the date of transfer. The purpose of the rule is to prevent “super-teams” from forming at a particular high school, said Minneapolis attorney Matthew Resch, who represented the plaintiffs. However, the plaintiffs said that League Bylaw 300.3.A. provided exceptions. Tunheim said two of those exceptions were relevant: Exception Five allows immediate eligibility if the student transfers for an advanced placement program. Exception Eight allows immediate eligibility if both schools agree.
The league would not determine W.D.’s eligibility before his transfer. Lakeville North then found him ineligible and the league denied his first appeal, which consists of completing an online form. Play passed to a hearing officer, where both schools’ activities directors said they supported the transfer and Lakeville North’s representative said that W.D. was in an advanced placement program. The hearing officer denied the appeal because Exception Five covered W.D. and was not satisfied because Holy Angels offered some advanced placement courses, although not as many as Lakeville. Since Exception Five covered the case, the hearing officer said, Exception Eight did not apply.
W.D., through his parents, sued charging the league with procedural and substantive due process violations under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, violation of Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law, and violation of Minn. Stat. sec. 128C.03, which requires the league to provide public notice of its eligibility rules.
The plaintiffs sought temporary injunctive relief and Tunheim said that any limitation on W.D.’s eligibility would have to conform to the requirements of due process. In a footnote, Tunheim noted that a majority of courts that directly confronted this issue have held that there is no constitutionally protected property interest in athletic eligibility, but said that “at this stage it is likely that [the court] would reach a different conclusion.”
Tunheim then turned to the issue of notice and said that W.D. had no notice of how Exception Five would be interpreted. “It is reasonable to read Exception Five to apply when a student transfers schools in order to take AP classes that are not offered at the former school, which is how W.D. and his parents interpreted the rule. It may also be reasonable to read the Exception differently, as the League did, but the existence of different reasonable readings suggests that Plaintiffs did not have fair notice that W.D. would be ineligible before he decided to transfer. Thus, Plaintiffs have demonstrated a probability of success on the merits of their procedural due process claim.”
If athletic eligibility warrants due process protection, it follows that being wrongfully deprived of it may amount to irreparable harm, Tunheim continued. The league argued that the court’s order would create administrative burdens and the games in W.D. played could later be forfeited. It also argued that W.D. could displace another player and his presence would adversely affect competitive equality on the rink.
Tunheim rejected the League’s “purported harms, made in the nature of a threat,” and emphasized that the court was only concerned with athletic eligibility, not making the team or the player’s ice time.
The league also argued that eligibility decisions are an arena best occupied by the league. The court agreed but said that “the public interest strongly favors the Court preventing wrongful deprivations of rights that may be protected by the Constitution.”
Hot stove league
Resch said that the plaintiffs preferred to settle with the high school league but could not “move the puck forward.”
“We thought it was incredibly important to protect the rights of people who couldn’t protect themselves,” Resch said. He also said that the league’s interpretation was not in the student’s best interests, and that the student’s transfer clearly was for academic reasons, specifically the advanced placement programs.
“I really hope the league takes the necessary steps to provide proper notice for families regarding eligibility. Our firm takes child advocacy very seriously and hope the league does too,” Resch said.
Kelly agreed that the take-away for the league is that there is an issue about notice, but also said that it had never been raised before.
However, he said that the case also presented a legal issue of agency deference. The league’s position is that it is entitled to deference in interpreting its own rules, Kelly said.