In Siding with Coach, Federal Judge Notes That National Governing Bodies Must Follow Own Rules

Mar 31, 2017

A federal judge from the Middle District of Tennessee has denied USA Swimming, Inc.’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction the complaint of a disgruntled swim coach, Philip Mark Walker, who had been suspended for life from membership in USA Swimming based on alleged Code of Conduct violations.
In so ruling, the court reasoned that a “determination of federal question jurisdiction is limited to the discrete issue of whether USA Swimming and the arbitrator properly implemented USA Swimming’s own rules and regulations in imposing the lifetime ban upon Walker,” which is exactly the question raised by the plaintiff in the complaint.
By way of background, the court noted that The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act (Sports Act) established the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). Further, for each Olympic sport, the Sports Act allows the USOC to recognize one national governing body, in this case USA Swimming. The Sports Act provides that USA Swimming is tasked with a number of duties, including establishing eligibility requirements for participation in Olympic swimming, recommending swimmers to represent the United States in the Olympic Games, and coordinating amateur swimming competitions in the United States.
Walker was a member of and coach for USA Swimming with more than 30 years of experience. In 2013, USA Swimming informed Walker that he was the subject of a complaint alleging Code of Conduct violations. After providing Walker with notice of the complaint, USA Swimming conducted a disciplinary process. This included a proceeding in front of USA Swimming’s National Board of Review, where Walker was issued a lifetime ban from membership in USA Swimming based on the alleged Code of Conduct violations. The lifetime ban was upheld by USA Swimming’s Board of Directors.
After the Board of Directors affirmed the National Board of Review’s decision, Walker challenged the decision through the American Arbitration Association (AAA). The Sports Act requires anyone wishing to appeal a USOC or national governing body decision to go through this process. In Walker’s applications for relief with the AAA, he requested a temporary injunction on the publication of his name on USA Swimming’s “banned” list, dismissal of USA Swimming’s lifetime ban, and/or a de novo hearing on the disciplinary issue. Walker did not request any damages. The arbitrator affirmed USA Swimming’s imposition of a lifetime ban upon Walker. No damages were awarded and each side was ordered to pay their own attorneys’ fees and costs.
Walker subsequently filed an amended petition and complaint to vacate the arbitration award and complaint for damages. In the Amended Petition, Walker claimed that USA Swimming and the arbitrator failed to follow a number of USA Swimming’s own rules and regulations throughout the disciplinary process, including denying him the right to call witnesses and to conduct discovery. He claims that subject matter jurisdiction is appropriate under both the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) and the Sports Act, as well as through diversity jurisdiction. USA Swimming, in its motion to dismiss, countered that neither statute provides federal courts with subject matter jurisdiction to review USA Swimming’s disciplinary process in regards to Walker. USA Swimming further counters that Walker cannot meet the requirements of diversity jurisdiction.
USA Swimming’s motion to dismiss is based upon Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
In its analysis, the court first examined whether it has subject matter jurisdiction through diversity jurisdiction. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1332, federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over actions in which the matter in controversy exceeds the sum of $75,000 and the dispute is between citizens of different states. The amount in controversy determination is complicated in situations, such as here, where Walker asks the court to vacate or reopen an arbitration award.
“Under both the award approach adopted for requests to vacate and the remand approach adopted for requests to reopen (an arbitration award), Walker fails to meet the amount in controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction,” wrote the court.
Next, the court turned to whether it has subject matter jurisdiction under federal question jurisdiction. Under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, federal courts “shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” Walker claims jurisdiction under two different federal statutes: 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(3) of the FAA and 36 U.S.C. § 220522(a)(8) of the Sports Act.
The court turned down Walker on the FAA, finding “well-established” case law undermining his argument.
The Sports Act was a different story.
“The courts have found that ‘there is no dispute that the USOC has exclusive jurisdiction when it comes to eligibility determinations,” wrote the court, citing Slaney v. The Int’l Amateur Athletic Fed’n, 244 F.3d 580, 595 (7th Cir. 2001). “This determination has been extended to the eligibility of coaches as well as athletes. Graham, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34637, 2011 WL 1261321 at *5
“However, at least one small exception has been recognized: ‘ensuring that the organization follows its rules for determining eligibility.’ Slaney, 244 F.3d at 595. According to the Seventh Circuit, ‘intervention is appropriate only in the most extraordinary circumstances, where the association has clearly breached its own rules, that breach will imminently result in serious and irreparable harm to the plaintiff, and the plaintiff has exhausted all internal remedies.’ Id. However, ‘while examining whether internal rules have been complied with, the courts should not intervene in the merits of the underlying dispute.’ Id. at 596 (quoting Harding v. U.S. Figure Skating Ass’n, 851 F. Supp. 1476, 1479 (D. Or. 1994)). ‘Injunctive relief is limited to correcting the breach of the rules.’ Harding, 851 F. Supp. at 1479.
“Slaney dealt with the preemption of state law claims by the Sports Act, but the analysis remains the same in a situation such as Walker’s. The plaintiff in Slaney tried to avoid the Sports Act’s lack of a private cause of action by relabeling her challenges to her eligibility determination as state law claims, such as breach of contract and negligence. Given that these claims were ‘actually challenges to the method by which the USOC determines eligibility of athletes’ and the plaintiff had ‘not suggested that the organization contravened its own guidelines,’ the court upheld the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims. In contrast, Walker, in the present case, has clearly pled in his amended petition that both USA Swimming and the arbitrator failed to follow USA Swimming’s rules and regulations in imposing the lifetime ban upon Walker.
“Consequently, although the Sports Act gives the USOC and its national governing bodies exclusive control over eligibility determinations, this court finds that it has jurisdiction to ensure the USOC, its entities, and the arbitrators properly apply USA Swimming’s rules and regulations. This finding is bolstered by the fact that the Sports Act, a federal statute, mandated arbitration as Walker’s only form of available appeal from USA Swimming’s disciplinary process. See 36 U.S.C. § 220529(a); 36 U.S.C. § 220529(d). As Walker has noted, the inability of a court to ensure USA Swimming’s compliance with its own rules and regulations would lead to the complete insulation of USA Swimming’s (and arbitrators’) decisions, a curious result when the arbitration was conducted according to federal statute. The Court notes that this determination of federal question jurisdiction is limited to the discrete issue of whether USA Swimming and the arbitrator properly implemented USA Swimming’s own rules and regulations in imposing the lifetime ban upon Walker, a determination the court will not make at this time.”
Philip Mark Walker v. USA Swimming, INC., a foreign corporation; M.D. Tenn.; Case No. 3:16-0825, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28943; 3/1/17
Attorneys: (For petitioner) Thomas Anderton Wiseman, III, LEAD ATTORNEY, Wiseman Ashworth Law Group PLC, Nashville, TN. (For respondent) Brent Rychener, LEAD ATTORNEY; Garry K. Grooms, Burr & Forman, LLP (Nashville Office), Nashville, TN.


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