Athletic conferences can be viewed as state agencies for jurisdictional purposes where the conference members are state universities or colleges that pay dues “to finance” the business of the conference, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has ruled.
The origin of the legal dispute was a post-game fight that occurred November 9, 2002 after a football game between Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) and Slippery Rock University (SRU) in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) suspended nine student-athletes from both teams and placed the respective programs on two years probation. The president of IUP appealed PSAC’s decision to Dr. Robert Dillman, acting Chairman of PSAC’s Board of Directors, but the decision was upheld.
Five of the suspended student-athletes filed a complaint on November 18, 2002, seeking a Special/Preliminary Injunction from the trial court. Following a hearing, the common pleas court granted the motion for preliminary injunction, which prevented PSAC from suspending the students, or placing the programs on probation. The PSAC appealed, arguing that the trial court was an inappropriate jurisdiction for the case.
By way of background, the PSAC is the athletic conference of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (SSHE) and is charged with promoting and administering the athletic programs of the 14 universities in SSHE. The conference is governed by a board of directors, the presidents from each of the 14 universities. The PSAC’s budget comes from membership dues paid by each of the 14 universities and an NCAA grant. The PSAC cannot own real estate and is not an independent legal entity.
In evaluating the appeal, the judge noted that Section 761(a)(1) of the Judicial Code, 42 Pa. C.S. § 761(a)(1), grants to the Commonwealth Court original jurisdiction over all civil proceedings brought against the “Commonwealth government” with certain exceptions.
It then wrote that SSHE is an agency of the Commonwealth government. East Stroudsburg University v. Hubbard, 140 Pa. Commw. 131, 591 A.2d 1181 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1991).
“In East Stroudsburg, students brought an action in equity to restrain East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, an SSHE university, from enforcing disciplinary action against them. The common pleas court entered a temporary restraining order against the University, and the University appealed to this Court claiming that the common pleas court did not have jurisdiction to enter such an order. We agreed with the University because this Court’s jurisdiction is ‘unique in that it is predicated upon the identity of the parties and the capacity in which they sue or are sued rather than the nature of the cause of action asserted” and, thus, the University’s identity as a Commonwealth agency brings it within our original jurisdiction. Id. at 1184 (quoting Brown v. Taylor, 90 Pa. Commw. 23, 494 A.2d 29 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1985)).”
In sum, the court concluded that PSAC is an entity of the Commonwealth government, notably because “the PSAC’s governing body, the Board of Directors, is comprised of the 14 presidents of the member universities, which, under East Stroudsburg University, are Commonwealth agencies.
“Second, the member universities each pay dues to finance the business of the PSAC and, through the Board of Directors, select staff to run the conference,” the court held.
Third, the PSAC “governs and administers the athletic activities of all 14 universities in SSHE. These activities take place across the entire state.” Kairi Cooper et al. v. Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, and Steven Murray, Commissioner, No. 2845 C.D. 2002
Pa. Cmwlth., 1/30/04
Attorneys of Record: (for appellants) Charles B. Schweitzer and Jeffrey B. Hawkins of Harrisburg, Pa..