Court Rules Against Immunity Defense in Case of First Impression

Nov 4, 2005

An Illinois state appeals court has reversed a lower court’s finding, giving new life to a basketball coach’s claim that the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) and its executive director were negligent and defamatory when they suspended him and then published the ruling on its web site.
Specifically, the appeals court found that the IHSA and its top official were not covered by the state’s Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (Act).
The plaintiff, Frank Hood, was a basketball coach at privately owned Christian Life High School (CLHS) in Rockford. CLHS is a member of the IHSA, which makes and enforces rules to assure that its members’ sports teams operate fairly. On September 18, 2002, Hood’s employer told the IHSA that he had violated IHSA rules pertaining to recruiting student athletes. Acting on the information, which turned out to be untrue, IHSA Executive Director Martin L Hickman suspended Hood from coaching at any IHSA member school for one year. Further, the ruling was published on the IHSA’s website and elsewhere.
Hood sued, claiming the defendants did not use due care in investigating the case and failed to inform him of the charge or allow him to defend himself. He also alleged that he was defamed.
The defendants promptly moved to dismiss the complaint, claiming the affirmative defense of immunity under the Act. Its claim relied on section 2-109 of the Act, which states, “A local public entity is not liable for an injury resulting from an act or omission of its employee where the employee is not liable.”
The foundation of the defendants’ position was that the IHSA is a “local public entity.” Section 1-206 of the Act defines that term as follows:
“’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).”
Relying in part on Carroll v. Paddock, 199 Ill. 2d 16, 764 N.E.2d 1118, 262 Ill. Dec. 1 (2002), the defendants argued that the IHSA is “organized for the purpose of conducting public business.” 745 ILCS 10/1-206 (West 2002). The defendants further argued that the IHSA meets this description “because it is controlled by local public officials, i.e., the principals of its member public schools.”
The plaintiff countered 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 denied the defendants’ motion. But after the defendants asked the court to reconsider, it dismissed the complaint, finding that 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.
The appeals court reverted “to the plain language of section 1-206.
“Defendants do not claim that the IHSA falls into any of the categories listed in the first sentence of section 1-206. Instead, relying on the second sentence, they contend that the IHSA is a ‘not-for-profit corporation organized for the purpose of conducting public business.’ 745 ILCS 10/1-206 (West 2002).
“However, as plaintiff points out, 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.”
Thus, the court reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court
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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