Appeals Court Sides with Athletic Association in Dispute over Athlete’s Eligibility

May 8, 2004

A Florida appeals court has concluded that a trial court erred when it granted a temporary injunction to a suspended student athlete and his high school, which allowed the student-athlete to continue playing football for the school.
In a key finding, the appeals court held that the student-athlete had not properly exhausted all of the administrative remedies available to him through the state’s high school athletic association.
The plaintiff, Robert Morris, was a promising high school football, who started his career at Melbourne Central Catholic High School (MCC), then transferred to another school before returning to MCC for the 2003-2004 school year. Suspicious circumstances surrounded his return to MCC, which led the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) to believe that he had been recruited back to MCC in violation of association rules.
The FHSAA, a voluntary, not-for-profit corporation comprised of public, private, parochial and institutional schools in Florida, investigated Morris’ situation and notified MCC of alleged recruiting violations and requested a response.
After MCC responded, the FHSAA issued a ruling on August 20, 2003 that made Morris ineligible for the entire season.
MCC and Morris appealed the ineligibility ruling to the FHSAA’s sectional appeals committee. On September 11, 2003, the sectional appeals committee denied the appeal. MCC and Morris were advised that they had a right to appeal the sectional appeals committee’s denial to the FHSAA Board of Directors at its next scheduled meeting on September 28, 2003.
Instead, MCC and Morris sought a temporary in junction through the courts that would allow Morris to play. The FHSAA moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that MCC and Morris had failed to exhaust the “available administrative remedies.” The court granted the request for a temporary injunction.
In support of its decision, the trial court noted that the Supreme Court of Florida has ruled in Flo-Sun, Inc. v. Kirk, 783 So. 2d 1029 (Fla. 2001) that some “agency errors are so egregious and devastating as to render administrative remedies too little, too late.” That reasoning applied in the instant case, it held, writing that the FHSAA should have been more timely in offering administrative remedies
On appeal, the plaintiff also argued that the exhaustion doctrine should not apply to voluntary associations.
The appeals court disagreed, pointing specifically to Westlake Cmty. Hosp. v. Superior Court, 17 Cal. 3d 465, 551 P.2d 410, 131 Cal. Rptr. 90 (Cal. 1976); Trustees of Cal. State Univ. & Colleges v. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n, 82 Cal. App. 3d 461, 147 Cal. Rptr. 187 (Cal. Ct. App. 1978). “Under the common law, associations may require their members to exhaust all internal remedies within the association before resorting to any court or tribunal outside of the association. As a general rule, when a private organization has procedures for internal review of its decisions, those procedures must be exhausted before seeking redress from a court. 6 Am. Jur. 2d Associations and Clubs § 30 (1999),” wrote the court.
The court added that only exceptional circumstances will allow a party to circumvent the doctrine, such as when the administrative remedies are “contrary to law, or where a resort to the internal remedies would be a useless undertaking, would be meaningless or would subject the complainant to unreasonable delay or hardship. Id.”
The plaintiffs also argued in their appeal that the FHSAA’s actions violated both their state and federal due process rights. Specifically, the trial court had “identified a possible protectable interest in Morris’s potential for an athletic scholarship.
That, too, was shot down with the appeals court holding that the possibility of a scholarship is not a protectable property interest, citing Indiana High Sch. Athletic Ass’n v. Carlberg, 694 N.E.2d 222, 241 (Ind. 1998). See also Schaill v. Tippecanoe County Sch. Corp., 679 F. Supp. 833, 855 (N.D. Ind. 1988) (“Student’s aspirations for a college scholarship from high school sports . . . do not establish any legally protected interests.”), aff’d, 864 F.2d 1309 (7th Cir. 1988).
The appeals court continued that “the complaint fails to allege, and the evidence fails to demonstrate, the deprivation by FHSAA of a constitutionally protected right. While FHSAA action is state action for constitutional purposes, Florida High School Activities Association, Inc. v. Bradshaw, 369 So. 2d 398, 401 (Fla. 2d DCA 1979), we find no constitutional violation here.”
The state court found agreement with the federal courts in that “a student’s interest in participating in interscholastic sports is a mere expectation, and not a constitutionally protected property right. Walsh v. La. High Sch. Athletic Ass’n, 616 F.2d 152 (5th Cir 1980); Mitchell.”
Finally, the appeals court was empathetic with the trial court, which sought “to exercise ‘equitable’ power for Morris’s benefit. However, the first principle of equity jurisdiction is that equity follows the law.” Fla. High Sch. Activities Ass’n, Inc. v. Adderly, 574 So. 2d 158, 159 (Fla. 4th DCA 1990) (quoting Bank of S. Palm Beaches v. Stockton, 473 So. 2d 1358, 1361 (Fla. 4th DCA 1985)).
Thus, the court reversed and remanded the case to the trial court. Florida High School Athletic Association v. Melbourne Central Catholic High School, et al.; Case No. 5D03-3437
Fla. 5th DCA; 3/26/04
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) Leonard E. Ireland, Jr. and Jennifer R. Williams of Clayton-Johnston, P. A., Gainesville, for Appellant. Douglas D. Marks of Boyd & Marks, L.L.C., Melbourne, for Appellee.


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