Madruga v. Utah High Sch. Activities Ass’n – Denying Exception Used to Protect the Greater Good

Dec 17, 2021

By Michael A. Ross, MS

On August 24, 2021, Colson Madruga (Plaintiff) filed a complaint against the Utah High School Activities Association Inc. (“UHSAA”), The Board of Education of Washington County School District (“Board”), Mike Bair, Richard Holmes, and Craig Hammer (Defendants) stating the aforementioned had violated his rights under the United States Constitution in the form of discriminatory action, which prohibited him from participating in UHSAA-sanctioned sports at Dixie High School. Soon after, the plaintiff would file a preliminary injunction requesting that the court enjoin the UHSAA from barring his participation in UHSAA-sanctioned sports for the 2021-2022 school year. 

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Madruga attended Lake Mead Christian Academy in Henderson, Nevada during his freshman and sophomore years of high school beginning in the 2017-2018 academic school year. Madruga would unfortunately miss his entire junior year (2019-2020) due to extensive and long-lasting medical issues which included hospitalization, two surgeries, and months of both convalescence and physical therapy. Toward the end of his therapy and overall recovery process, Madruga and his family moved from their home in Nevada and relocated to Washington County, Utah. While establishing themselves in Utah, Madruga would be enrolled at Dixie High School as a junior in August 2020 for the 2020-2021 academic school year. Upon realizing that Madruga had missed the entirety of his junior year in Nevada, administrators within Dixie High School encouraged Madruga to complete both his junior and senior academic requirements during the 2020-2021 academic year to afford him the opportunity to graduate with his age-appropriate class. Madruga was opposed to such a suggestion stating that completing both his junior and senior years during the 2020-2021 academic year would be “unduly burdensome.”

On December 18, 2020, Dixie High School informed Madruga he could finish the 2020-2021 academic school year as a senior and would be permitted to continue his attendance during the 2021-2022 academic school year as a retained senior. As a result of this accommodation, Madruga was also informed he should schedule a hearing with the UHSAA to determine his eligibility regarding athletic participation for the 2021-2022 school year based on the reasoning and justification that athletic eligibility for academic attendance and UHSAA athletic participation are separate determinations within Utah. It should be noted that Madruga was permitted to participate in UHSAA-sanctioned sports during the 2020-2021 academic school year. It should also be noted that within the UHSAA handbook a rule documented as Years of Eligibility Rule states the following: “At the time a student first enters the ninth grade of high school or an equivalent level of education in any other system, that student shall have four consecutive years of eligibility for Association activities.” The wording and intent of this specific rule offers the understanding that once a student begins their ninth-grade year, the four-year participation window begins to count down. This is a strict, four-year, continuous countdown which establishes there is no break permitted within the aforementioned allotment for participation. UHSAA does not permit exceptions to the Years of Eligibility Rule based on the reasoning of the following five primary points including:

  • Discouraging students to delay completion of high school education to compete longer in high school athletics; (2) keeping interscholastic activities competitive and safe by allowing students of relative equal maturity to compete; (3) preventing injury to students who are less physically and emotionally mature than others; (4) avoiding unfair competition and unfair displacement of other student athletes; and (5) graduating students on time so they do not become an undue financial burden on the taxpayers of Utah.”

It should also be made known that the UHSAA handbook contains a specific “Sport Season Rule” which states:

No student shall participate in Association activities in more than four seasons in any one activity after entering the ninth grade. A student shall have no more than one season of eligibility per sport per year. A school may sponsor an activity only once in any school year.

On March 24, 2021, UHSAA held a meeting to determine the status of Madruga’s eligibility to participate in UHSAA-sanctioned sports during the 2021-2022 academic year. Madruga and his family were permitted to attend, speak, and present evidence to support their argument for approved participation at this specific meeting. The UHSAA determined that Madruga was ineligible on the basis that his freshman year window for athletic participation began in the 2017-2018 academic school year while attending Lake Mead Academy in Nevada. Based on this reasoning, Madruga’s final year of eligibility would have expired at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year. As a result of these determinations, Madruga filed an appeal in April of 2021. The appeals panel would review evidence and provided documentation from Madruga only to affirm the previous ruling found during the meeting held in March with the same justification that his four consecutive years of athletic eligibility time frame began in the 2017-2018 academic year while attending Lake Mead Academy and concluded after the 2020-2021 academic year at Dixie High School.

CASE ANAYLSIS AND KEY FACTORS

Madruga sought to enjoin UHSAA from barring him from participation in two specific areas; UHSAA-sanctioned preseason tournaments and official in-season tryouts that fall within the timeframe previously mentioned. Madruga asserts these claims by stating that the determination provided by the UHSAA regarding his ineligibility was an arbitrary abuse of power that continually violated his Fourteenth Amendment equal protection right.

 For clarification purposes, it should be made known that to obtain a preliminary injunction Madruga must prove the following:

  • [the movant] will suffer irreparable injury unless the injunction issues; (2) the threatened injury outweighs whatever damage the proposed injunction may cause the opposing party; (3) the injunction, if issued, would not be averse to the public interest; and (4) there is a substantial likelihood [of the moving party’s success] on the merits.    

Where the moving party can display the first three standards highly favorable from their perspective, the Tenth Circuit also makes note that the moving party may satisfy the fourth factor “by showing that questions going to the merits are so serious, substantial, difficult, and doubtful as to make the issue ripe for litigation and deserving of more deliberate investigation.” This relaxed course of action pertinent to the standard is only applicable if the movant cannot satisfy the traditional and aforementioned standard. Also stated by the Tenth Circuit, the movant must satisfy an even heavier burden of showing that the four preliminary injunction factors weigh heavily and compellingly in movant’s favor before such an injunction may be issued pertaining to three types of disfavored preliminary injunctions: 1) preliminary injunctions that alter the status quo, 2) mandatory preliminary injunctions, and 3) preliminary injunctions that afford the movant all the relief that it could recover at the conclusion of a full trial on the merits. Any preliminary injunction falling within these aforementioned unfavorable parameters are taken into great consideration and scrutinization. It is understood that the party seeking such an injunction, as that previously described, must establish a strong argument and present sound and persuasive information favorable to both the likelihood of success on the merits and with regard to the balance of harms standards.

Here the status quo is defined as “the last uncontested status between the parties which preceded the controversy until the outcome of the final hearing.” For referential purposes, a mandatory injunction is recognized as an injunction mandating action as opposed to prohibiting an action. The Tenth Circuit does make claim that implementing a mandatory injunction is applicable if the relief being sought does require such an action or calls for the nonmovant to act in a certain manner, resulting in further oversight on behalf of the court to ensure the nonmovant is abiding by such an injunction.

UHSAA states that Madruga is seeking the previously defined disfavored injunction. Because of this, Madruga assumes the burden of proof that addresses likelihood of success on the merits and regarding the balance of harms in such a way to be deemed favorable to his claims. Because Madruga was at the time ineligible (status quo) and his injunction sought to force the UHSAA to reinstate his eligibility, while also calling for affirmative action through the UHSAA being required to reverse its previously established ineligibility determination which would also require the court to continually monitor the UHSAA to ensure Madruga participated in every single UHSAA-sanctioned sporting event, evidence of disfavored injunction status was established.

In the first area of consideration, Madruga must establish there is a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of his equal protection claim. For this motion to be granted by the court, a probable right and probable danger must exist. Madruga’s claim states that he has a constitutional right to play four seasons of high school athletics in which this right is being denied based on discriminatory reasons. With this claim, Madruga essentially states that he is highly likely to prevail on the merits of his equal protection claim resulting in injunctive relief being awarded to him. The result of this claim, as established by the Tenth Circuit, is that Madruga’s claim fails because such a right as participation in interscholastic athletics is not a constitutionally protected civil right. This reasoning is further defined by the Tenth Circuit stating that they have “consistently found that unless clearly defined constitutional principles are at issue, the suits of student-athletes displeased with high school athletic associations or NCAA rules do not present substantial federal questions.” Madruga fails to establish a claim based on a fundamental right afforded to those on the basis of race, national origin, or even the quasi-suspect characteristic such as gender. Failing to establish himself in such an aforementioned class, Madruga is essentially placed in a class defined as high school athletes who want to play sports for four years, but for whom more than four consecutive years have passed since beginning their ninth-grade year in school. This specific class does not represent a protected class or a fundamental right resulting in the application of the rational basis test. In this scenario the rational basis test determines “whether the government’s classification bears a rational relation to some legitimate end.” Regarding this specific case, the rational basis test is met by the UHSAA’s use and implementation of the Years of Eligibility Rule. As previously established and mentioned, the UHSAA provides clear and sound reasoning for not allowing exceptions to the rule within said handbook. In response to this, Madruga argues that the rule is not sound unless it states a minimum number of years as opposed to the current status stating a maximum number of years one can be eligible for athletic participation. The deficiency of this argument can be identified through the specific wording of the rule which maintains an emphasis on the word consecutive. With this singular word being present the meaning of the rule is clear, and one can easily comprehend that the date a student-athlete begins ninth grade, their four-year eligibility begins and does not become hindered despite any breaks, gap years, transfers, injuries, or any other claims being presented. Madruga attempted to counter this finding by comparing the rule within the UHSAA handbook to similar rules within other state high school associations that have clauses allowing some exception to be made and athletes playing a fifth year. This claim would ultimately fall by the wayside as no such provision or exception is listed within the UHSAA handbook, thus deeming it unapplicable. Therefore, it is determined that Madruga failed to prove or show any prohibited differential treatment under the rational basis test, he has no constitutional right to play high school sports, and he fails to show any likelihood of success on the merits of his equal protection claim. 

Regarding the irreparable injury claim, Madruga states that being denied the opportunity to participate in UHSAA-sanctioned sporting opportunities during the 2021-2022 season his chances of receiving a collegiate athletic scholarship will be harmed thus resulting in irreparable injury. The court defines this occurrence as “a plaintiff suffers irreparable injury when the court would be unable to grant an effective monetary remedy after a full trial because such damages would be inadequate or difficult to ascertain.” Madruga also claims that restricting him from such opportunities will “permanently and irreparably deprive him of his equal educational right to play four years of consecutive high school sports.” While this matter is of personal harm to Madruga, it does not constitute as a legal injury as there is no constitutional right to participate in high school athletics. Referencing precedential findings firmly establishes that ineligibility for such participation does not constitute irreparable harm.

Considering the balance of harms standard, the burden of proof falls to the plaintiff to show that the threatened injury outweighs and injury to the defendants caused by granting the injunction. Madruga states that the UHSAA will not suffer in any way by permitting him eligibility to participate in his final year. Contrarily, the UHSAA states that allowing the injunction will directly harm their legitimacy and open the proverbial Pandora’s Box that would offer precedent for future students seeking similar exceptions based on adverse eligibility decisions. Because of the common nature of Madruga’s situation, the UHSAA establishes granting this exception would be directly harmful toward their mission of best serving all stakeholders within their influence and guidance. Because of this understanding, Madruga fails to establish his own injury outweighs that of the UHSAA in that granting his injunction would contradict and act against the UHSAA’s mission to govern over those fairly and uniformly it has been charged with directing.

Lastly, the issue of public interest must be considered. Any instance in which constitutional rights are being questioned, public interest must be considered. Madruga asserts that enjoining the UHSAA would not go against public interest based on the understanding that he is a school aged child, and because he was previously enrolled in a private school he has not been a drain on the state’s secondary education budget. UHSAA responds to these claims by highlighting previous findings as to the intent of the rules origin which are set to protect athletes and promote high school aged students to pursue the next chapter of life post-graduation. To go against the intent of these rules would be directly counteractive toward the desired end result and overall wellbeing of student-athlete safety. The court references the wording established by the Years of Eligibility Rule and the intent of its use to find Madruga’s claims to be insufficient and an example of the exceptions this rule was set to enforce against and protect its stakeholders from.  

CONCLUSION

The court denies Madruga’s motion because he failed to meet any of the four prongs established under the traditional preliminary injunction standard. Although Madruga’s situation is unfortunate to many parties, the rules and regulations established within the UHSAA’s handbook are well protected and implemented for the protection and fairness of a much larger entity than found in this specific case and exist to protect the greater good of said parties.

References

Madruga v. Utah High Sch. Activities Ass’n., No. 4:21-cv-00089-DN, 2021 U.S. Dist. WL 4748493, at *(District of Utah, October 12, 2021)

Michael A. Ross is the Department Chair and an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Shorter University and a PhD student at Troy University specializing in research related to youth sport studies, leadership, sport law, social media policies and procedures within athletics, and participation motivations in sport and recreation.