A Georgia state appeals court has affirmed a trial court’s ruling, which overturned the decision of the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) because the GHSA did not follow its own rules when it punished a school for violating the association’s bylaws.
The court began its analysis by noting that the GHSA is an unincorporated association of public and private high schools, which serves as the governing body for high school athletic, music, speech, and other fine arts competitions among high schools in the State of Georgia.
GHSA promulgates rules for each sport it governs, and its Constitution and By-Laws (often called, and referred to herein as, the “White Book”) set out the method for addressing any violation of such rules. Charlton County School District, the defendant, competes in high school baseball, among other activities, under the auspices of GHSA. One of GHSA’s rules applicable to baseball prohibits a player from throwing more than 110 pitches in a two-day period, with certain exceptions not applicable here. A violation of the pitch-count rule potentially subjects the offending school to a $250 fine, a two-game suspension for its head coach, and the forfeit of the game in which the violation occurred.
During two baseball games played consecutively on March 9 and 10, 2018, the official GHSA pitch count showed that one Charlton County player threw 115 pitches, violating the GHSA pitch-count restriction. At GHSA-sanctioned games, the pitch count is conducted by a GHSA-registered umpire, and although not required by GHSA rules, it is routine practice for the pitch count monitor (PCM) to give a courtesy warning to teams and the home-plate umpire when a player is approaching the pitch-count limit, and, in fact, GHSA trains PCMs to give such warnings. However, no such warnings were given at Charlton County’s March 10 game against Lanier County High School (Lanier County), during which the rule violation occurred. The White Book authorizes the State Executive Director to interpret GHSA rules and impose the proper penalty for any rule violation, and on March 15, 2018, Charlton County self-reported the pitch count violation to Dr. Robin Hines, GHSA Executive Director. That same day, GHSA officials, including Hines and Ernie Yarborough, GHSA Assistant Executive Director, participated in a conference call with representatives from Charlton County to discuss the matter. Following the conference call, Yarborough and Hines conferred and decided the appropriate punishment for the violation was to issue Charlton County a warning. Yarborough sent an e-mail that day to Charlton County and Lanier County announcing that a violation had occurred, “but upon further review of all the circumstances” GHSA ruled that there would “be no penalty due to the PCM not informing the Charlton Co. coach, nor the home plate umpire, that pitching to the final batter would exceed the two-day pitch count restriction.”
The White Book provides that any member that is unsatisfied with a penalty decision has seven calendar days after the decision in which to file an appeal to GHSA’s State Appeal Board (Appeal Board), or if the only issue under appeal is a request to modify the penalty imposed, the member school may appeal directly to the Executive Committee of GHSA. On appeal, the State Appeal Board or the Executive Committee then considers the evidence submitted by the party or parties in rendering its decision. No appeal of the March 15 decision was filed within the seven-day period, and Charlton County went on to finish its regular season with a 14-2 record against its Region 2A opponents. Irwin County High School (Irwin County) also finished with a 14-2 record for the season, but because both of its losses had been against Charlton County, Charlton County was named the 2018 Region 2A Champion.
Subsequently, on April 18, 2018, the head coach of Irwin County sent an e-mail to a number of Irwin County school officials and GHSA employees, including Yarbrough, complaining of GHSA’s March 15 decision to issue Charlton County a warning instead of a penalty and asking GHSA to award the win in the March 10 game to Lanier County.
Hines ultimately changed his mind and ruled that Charlton County would forfeit the March 10 game to Lanier County. In that e-mail, Hines stated that he was “disappointed that there was no appeal to the original ruling in a timely fashion since the game in question was played well over a month ago.” As a result of Hines’ decision, Charlton County was stripped of the Region 2A championship, which was awarded instead to Irwin County, and Charlton County dropped below Irwin County in the rankings for the upcoming state baseball championship playoffs, affecting its seeding position for the playoffs. GHSA posted the playoff rankings on its website later that day and announced that no further appeals would be heard. The time for appealing the rankings had, in fact, expired at 12:00 noon on April 23, 2018, approximately 32 minutes after Hines provided Charlton County with his written ruling.
On April 25, 2018, Charlton County filed a “Petition for Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief,” asking the trial court to declare that Irwin County’s appeal of the March 15 decision was void because it was decided in violation of the White Book, that Charlton County’s record for the season remained 14-2, and that it was the 2018 Region 2A baseball champion. The petition also sought to enjoin GHSA from conducting the Class A public school state playoffs until the matter could be heard. Following an evidentiary hearing into the matter, the trial court issued an order on May 2, 2018, finding that GHSA had violated the White Book in considering and ruling on Irwin County’s appeal and that GHSA’s decision on the matter was void. As a result, the trial court:
enjoined GHSA from granting Lanier County a forfeit victory in the March 10 game against Charlton County;
required GHSA to recognize the original outcome of the March 10 game;
required GHSA to recognize that Charlton County finished with a 14-2 record against Region 2A opponents;
required GHSA, after Charlton County’s record had been changed to reflect a victory in the March 10 game, to determine the Region 2A champion according to its rules;
required GHSA to recalculate the power ratings for the top eight teams in the Class A baseball playoffs; and
required GHSA to disseminate the updated playoff bracket to affected teams.
Irwin County filed an appeal and emergency motion seeking a stay of the trial court’s order, and the instant court granted the motion on May 4, 2018. Consequently, GHSA was not required to reinstate Charlton County’s victory in the March 10 game before the state playoffs, and the schools retained their rankings as posted on April 23, 2018. The state playoffs and championship games were played and the season has now concluded. The appeal followed.
The GHSA argued that the issues on appeal are moot as of the completion of the 2018 baseball season, because the playoffs are over and the playoff seedings cannot be redetermined at this point. On the other hand, Charlton County argued that issues related to its regular season record remain a live controversy and the issues presented with respect to the playoffs are capable of repetition yet evade review, and, therefore, not subject to the mootness doctrine.
The appeals court concluded that “while any issues regarding the power rankings and seedings for the 2018 state baseball championship are moot, the issue of whether the trial court properly voided the appeal and ordered that the March 10 victory be awarded to Charlton County, resulting in a redetermination of the 2018 2A Region regular season baseball champion based on this change, as well as the issue of whether the courts may intervene to consider such issues, is not moot, and we may properly consider them.”
The appeals court noted that it “is undisputed that GHSA did not follow the appeal procedures set out in the White Book, which require that appeals of penalty decisions be made within seven days and that such appeals be considered by the GHSA Appeal Board or the Executive Committee and that the parties involved be allowed to present evidence in the matter. Irwin County did not raise any complaint about the March 15 decision until April 18, 34 days later, in an e-mail to Hines, the Executive Director, and others, even though Irwin County acknowledged that it was aware of that ruling around the time it was made, and Irwin County did not file its formal written appeal to the Appeal Board until April 23, 39 days after the decision. Nevertheless, Hines considered Irwin County’s appeal, despite acknowledging its untimeliness in his written decision, and he decided the matter individually and apparently without notice to the Appeals Board as required by the White Book. Moreover, Hines did not forward Irwin County’s April 18 complaint to Charlton County even though the White Book requires that the involved schools be given notice of any appeal. Given the timing of the impending state championship playoffs, Charlton was left with just 32 minutes to respond to Hines’ ruling, in effect, giving the school no practical recourse under the White Book’s procedures.
“Despite this series of events, GHSA argues that no violation occurred, raising for the first time in its supplemental appellate brief following oral argument that the White Book granted Hines the discretion to rule on the appeal. In support of this argument, GHSA cites a provision of the White Book providing, ‘The State Executive Director shall make all arrangements for holding and conducting State Meets and Tournaments.’ GHSA asserts that this provision gives the Executive Director broad discretion and asserts that because this language is a more specific provision of the White Book than the appellate procedures, it should control. Pretermitting whether this language can be construed as more specific than the appellate procedures or whether it even relates to the issues remaining in this case regarding Charlton County’s win-loss record and the regional championship, GHSA has failed to establish that it ever raised this issue before the trial court. It certainly does not appear in any of GHSA’s written filings, and GHSA failed to submit a transcript of the hearing in this matter.”
It continued: “Because GHSA breached its own appeal procedures when it allowed Irwin County to file an untimely appeal without sufficient time for Charlton County to respond and failed to submit the appeal to the Appeal Board for presentation of evidence, as required in the White Book, we affirm that portion of the trial court’s order voiding Irwin County’s appeal and directing GHSA to award the victory in the March 10 game against Lanier County to Charlton County and after that change is made to Charlton County’s record, to determine the Region 2A baseball championship according to its rules and remand this case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”
Ga. High Sch. Ass’n v. Charlton County Sch. Dist.; Ct. App. Ga., 1st Div.; 019 Ga. App. LEXIS 158 *; 2019 WL 1090758; 3/8/19