Appeals Court Reverses Immunity Ruling for Athletics Association

Dec 15, 2005

An Illinois appeals court has found that the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) is not shielded by the state’s Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (Act) in a case where it was sued by a basketball coach for negligence and defamation.
Central to the court’s ruling was its finding that the IHSA did not fit within the narrow description of what types of entities are covered within the Act and that the court was unwilling to insert such language.
The plaintiff, Frank Hood, was a basketball coach at privately owned Christian Life High School (CLHS) in Rockford. CLHS belongs to the IHSA, as do the vast majority of high schools, private and public, in Illinois. The IHSA makes and enforces rules to assure that its members’ sports teams “operate fairly.”
The impetus for the legal action occurred on November 5, 2002 when the IHSA, relying on faulty allegations about recruiting violations from Hood’s employer, barred him from coaching at any IHSA member school for one year. Hood claimed the defendant did not use due care in investigating the case and failed to inform him of the charge or allow him to answer it with evidence. Hood also alleged that the IHSA defamed him by publishing its ruling on the IHSA’s web site and elsewhere.
The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint, citing the affirmative defense of immunity under the Act. The IHSA argued specifically that it was a “Local Public Entity,” as defined by Section 1-206, which reads:
“’Local public entity’ includes a county, township, municipality, municipal corporation, school district, school board, educational service region, regional board of school trustees, community college district, community college board, forest preserve district, park district, fire protection district, sanitary district, museum district, emergency telephone system board, and all other local governmental bodies. ‘Local public entity’ also includes library systems and any intergovernmental agency or similar entity formed pursuant to the Constitution of the State of Illinois or the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act as well as any not-for-profit corporation organized for the purpose of conducting public business. It does not include the State or any office, officer, department, division, bureau, board, commission, university or similar agency of the State.” (Emphasis added.) 745 ILCS 10/1-206 (West 2002).
The plaintiff countered that the sentence in section 1-206 on which defendants relied applies only to “not-for-profit corporations” (745 ILCS 10/1-206 (West 2002)) and thus, read literally, excludes the IHSA. Also, the plaintiff reasoned that “because the IHSA is a statewide organization, it is more akin to a division or agency of the State than to a unit of local government.”
The trial court, ultimately, dismissed the complaint, writing that even though a voluntary association is not specifically listed as a type of “local public entity” in section 1-206, “the IHSA is the equivalent of a ‘not-for-profit corporation organized to conduct public business.’” The court reasoned that the IHSA is “tightly enmeshed with local governments” because its operations are controlled by “the local school district members.”
The plaintiff appealed.
Noting that the argument before it was a question of first impression, the appeals court agreed with the plaintiff that the IHSA “is simply not a not-for-profit corporation. It is a voluntary association. Thus, to interpret the language at issue as defendants urge would require us to read in a term that the legislature easily could have inserted but did not.
“Such judicial legislation would be no more defensible than reading unexpressed exceptions, limitations, or conditions into the Act. Moreover, even were the term ‘not-for-profit corporation’ somehow to be considered ambiguous, strict construction would require us to resolve any ambiguity against defendants.”
Frank Hood v. The Illinois High School Association and Martin L. Hickman; App. Ct. Ill., 2d Dist.; No. 2-05-0141; 9/16/05


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