Federal Judge Sides with State High School Athletic Association in Eligibility Case

Feb 15, 2019

A federal judge from the Western District of Texas has dismissed the claim of the father of a high school athlete, who alleged that the governing body for Texas high school athletics violated his son’s Constitutional rights when it delayed his participation in athletics at the school of his choice. In so ruling, the court leaned heavily on 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case law that “Constitutional challenges to (eligibility) rules” lack merit.
Plaintiff Ruben Martinez’s son, N.M., was a student at New Deal High School (New Deal) in the New Deal Independent School District (New Deal ISD) in Lubbock County, Texas. N.M. lived with his mother in New Deal ISD until April 2016 before moving in with his father, Martinez, who resides within the attendance boundaries of Cooper High School (Cooper) in the Cooper Independent School District (Cooper ISD). Despite moving out of New Deal ISD, N.M. continued to attend New Deal for the remainder of his eighth-grade year, all of his freshman year, and half of his sophomore year.
One of N.M.’s best friends is J.J. Through N.M.’s friendship with J.J., Martinez met J.J.’s mother, Natasha. Martinez and Natasha married in August 2017. Natasha’s second child, E.J., has learning disabilities. Natasha, J.J., and E.J. moved out of New Deal ISD and moved in with N.M. and Martinez in Cooper ISD. Cooper ISD is a large school district, and Natasha felt that it was better equipped to effectively deal with E.J.’s learning disability. E.J. and J.J. left New Deal and enrolled in schools in Cooper ISD. J.J., who is also a football player, wanted to stay at New Deal with N.M. for his sophomore year, but was not permitted to remain enrolled at New Deal. However, N.M., who developed into a talented football player and track athlete, was permitted to stay at New Deal despite not living in New Deal ISD. During the fall of 2017, Martinez drove N.M. to and from New Deal, approximately 20 miles each way. This daily trip was time-consuming and expensive.
In January 2018, N.M. enrolled in Cooper. When New Deal’s football coach learned that N.M. had enrolled in Cooper, he told Martinez that if N.M. returned to New Deal within 24 hours, the school would allow J.J. to attend New Deal as well. Martinez declined the offer and the coach became upset. Allegedly, New Deal falsely reported to UIL that N.M. transferred to Cooper for “athletic purposes” and New Deal did so for “the sole purpose of punishing [N.M.] for enrolling in a different school.” UIL accepted New Deal’s claim, determined that N.M. enrolled at Cooper for athletic purposes, declared N.M. ineligible to play varsity sports until January 2019, and denied N.M.’s appeal of his ineligibility.
Martinez argued that athletics “did not play a role in the decision for N.M. to enroll at Cooper in January of 2018,” wrote the court. “N.M. is a straight-A student ranked 15th in a class of 400. Cooper is a much larger school than New Deal and Martinez asserts it offers significantly more educational opportunities, such as an abundance of dual credit, accelerated, and AP courses not available at New Deal. N.M. enrolled at Cooper primarily because of the wealth of educational opportunities offered by Cooper, Cooper’s proximity to N.M.’s home, and N.M.’s close relationship with J.J., who also attends Cooper.”
On Nov. 8, 2018, Martinez filed a First Amended Complaint under Section 1983, alleging violations of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Martinez alleged that UIL violated N.M.’s Constitutional rights to equal protection of the law, due process, and a public education. Martinez asked the court to issue an injunction to prevent UIL from enforcing its decision to prevent N.M. from participating in varsity sports until January 2019.
The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “arguing that Martinez failed to state a claim for any constitutional violation.”
In its analysis, the court noted that Martinez brought his action under Section 1983, alleging three underlying Constitutional violations: “(1) UIL violated N.M.’s constitutional right to equal protection; (2) UIL violated N.M.’s right to due process; and (3) UIL violated N.M.’s constitutional right to an education. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983.”
However, “the gravamen of the complaint here is the denial of the right to participate in interscholastic sports,” not the right to equal protection, the right to due process, or the right to an education. Niles v. Univ. Interscholastic League, 715 F.2d 1027, 1031 (5th Cir. 1983). The Fifth Circuit “has considered many variations of claims alleging infringement of constitutional rights in the context of eligibility rules for competition in interscholastic leagues and has uniformly rejected constitutional challenges to those rules.” Cornerstone Christian Schs v. Univ. Interscholastic League, 563 F.3d 127, 136 (5th Cir. 2009). Thus, although the court will examine each alleged constitutional violation, the court for the foregoing reasons will dismiss all claims against UIL.”
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Joseph Craig Johnston, LEAD ATTORNEY, Johnston & Miller, Lubbock, TX. (for defendants University Interscholastic League, Dr. Charles Breithaupt, Executive Director) Matthew Bohuslav, LEAD ATTORNEY, Texas Attorney General’s Office, Austin, TX; Christine Michelle Hervey Smith, Office of the Attorney General, General Litigation Division, Austin, TX.; Slater C. Elza, LEAD ATTORNEY, Underwood Law Firm, PC, Amarillo, TX.


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