Judicial Review of Eligibility Issues in Scholastic Athletics

By Bemiller, James H. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, May-June 2009 | Go to article overview
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Judicial Review of Eligibility Issues in Scholastic Athletics

Bemiller, James H., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance

Elizabeth Mancuso was a talented swimmer who attended the Austin Preparatory School her freshman year, but did not compete for the school team. Instead she competed as a member of a private swim club. In the fall of 2000, Mancuso transferred to Andover High School and, because she had started school a year earlier than most of her classmates, she repeated the ninth grade. At Andover, during her second freshman year, the plaintiff joined the school's varsity swim team and continued to compete successfully during her sophomore and junior years. Shortly before her senior season, she was declared ineligible to compete by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA), which regulates competitive interscholastic sport in the state.

Mancuso was ruled ineligible pursuant to its fifth-year student rule, Rule 59. 1 of the MIAA Rules and Regulations Governing Athletics, which provides that a student shall be eligible for interscholastic competitions for no more than 12 consecutive athletic seasons. The MIAA ruled that Mancuso's eligibility clock had started with her first freshman year at Austin, although she did not compete in interscholastic athletics that year. Therefore, her four years of eligibility had concluded at the end of her junior year at Andover.

Pursuant to the internal appeals process of the MIAA, Mancuso's principal at Andover applied to the MIAA requesting a waiver, which was denied, and subsequently appealed to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletics Council (MIAC), the last step in the MIAA's internal appeals process. The MIAC denied a waiver of the rule and did not grant eligibility to Mancuso.

Trial Court Proceedings

Mancuso filed suit in the Massachusetts Superior Court requesting a restraining order that would allow her to compete during her senior year. Her complaint sought relief from the decision of the MIAA to deny her a waiver and reinstatement as a member of the varsity swim team at Andover. The plaintiff alleged that the MIAA violated her civil rights, and she sought compensatory and punitive damages, attorneys' fees, and the injunctive relief of reinstatement of her eligibility. A superior court judge granted her injunctive relief request, and Mancuso competed for Andover for the remainder of her senior year in 2003. A jury trial was held in the superior court and at the conclusion of the evidence, the court granted a directed verdict in favor of the defendant MIAA on all allegations except the plaintiff's claim of her due-process rights violation. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, finding that MIAA had failed to provide the plaintiff sufficient due process, and awarded her $10,000 in compensatory damages. The MIAA then moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (judgment n.o.v.), which was granted. This means that the court entered judgment for the defendant MIAA, in essence overruling the jury verdict in favor of Mancuso. The superior court judge ruled that the plaintiff had no constitutionally protected interest in the right to participate on the swim team under which she could pursue a due process claim. Both parties appealed to the appeals court. The case was transferred to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

Supreme Court Proceedings

To recover under a federal civil rights claim, the plaintiff needed to prove that the MIAA acted under color of law and that through its actions it deprived the plaintiff of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States.

Since the MIAA had previously been ruled a state actor (Attorney General v. MIAA), their conduct fulfilled the element of action under color of state law needed to pursue a federal civil rights action. Therefore, as a state actor, MIAA's conduct is properly reviewable by the court with regard to the constitutionality of its actions toward sanctioning the plaintiff.

The second element the court considered was whether the MIAA deprived the plaintiff of any constitutionally protected rights under federal law.

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