Minnesota State High School League Defeats High School Athlete’s Procedural and Substantive Due Process Claims in Eligibility Controversy

Nov 17, 2023

A federal judge from the District of Minnesota granted the Minnesota State High School League’s motion for summary judgment in a case in which it was sued after finding that a plaintiff/student athlete was ineligible to compete in athletics.

By way of background, Plaintiff A.K. was entering 9th grade in the fall of 2022. He was a resident in Montgomery, Minnesota, where there are at least two public high schools available to residents in that area: Tri-City United High School, located in Montgomery, or Jordan High School, in Jordan, Minnesota. 

A.K. initially decided to attend Tri-City and to participate on that school’s freshman football team. After attending the first week of practice in August before classes began, A.K. decided that he would rather attend Jordan High School. He enrolled at Jordan High School for the first day of classes and has been a student there since.

In November 2022, A.K. joined the varsity wrestling team for Scott West, a cooperative athletic program for Jordan and Bell Plaine High Schools. In January 2023, however, A.K.’s parents learned that Jordan High School had declared A.K. ineligible for varsity sports because Defendant Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL or League) rules deemed him a transfer student to Jordan by reason of his participation in football practices at Tri-City. 

The relevant MSHSL bylaw provides that a “transfer student” is ineligible for participation in varsity athletics for one calendar year after the transfer unless the student meets certain criteria, which are irrelevant to the instant case.

A “transfer student” is defined as a student who discontinues enrollment and attendance in any Minnesota-based high school, public or non-public, home school, or online . . . and enrolls in any high school in Minnesota, or outside of MN. Essentially, a transfer occurs anytime the school of record changes. A transfer is considered complete when the student attends class at the new school or participates with an athletic program prior to attending school (fall season only), whichever is earlier. Although the transfer student is prohibited from varsity interscholastic athletics, the student may participate in other ways, such as on the school’s junior varsity or intramural teams, and can practice and participate in scrimmages, previews, and “jamborees” with the varsity team, according to League bylaws.

Jordan High School appealed to the MSHSL, arguing that freshman football was not an activity sponsored by the MSHSL and thus the transfer rule did not apply to A.K. The MSHSL denied the appeal, and A.K. and his parents secured legal representation. The MSHSL granted A.K. a hearing before the Executive Committee to review the denial. That hearing, however, was scheduled to take place after the rosters for the varsity wrestling section playoff meets were due. A.K.’s lawyer sent several emails to the MSHSL before the hearing setting forth A.K.’s arguments regarding the application of the transfer rule, but neither the lawyer nor A.K.’s parents attended the Executive Committee hearing.

The Executive Committee upheld the previous determination that A.K. was ineligible to participate in varsity athletics because of the League’s transfer rule. A.K. did not participate in the section meet and thus did not qualify for the state wrestling tournament in 2023. However, the complaint claims that he was at one time the ninth-ranked wrestler in the state in his weight class.

A.K., through his parents J.K and S.K., initially filed this lawsuit in Rice County. The complaint contains two causes of action against the League and the League’s President, Troy Stein. Count one claims that participation in varsity athletics is a property interest and the MSHSL’s decision that A.K. could not participate violated his substantive and procedural due-process rights. Count two contends that the MSHSL’s bylaws are a contract between the MSHSL and student-athletes, and that the MSHSL’s decision breached that contract. A.K. sought compensatory and punitive damages for the alleged violations. The defendants removed the case to federal court and filed the motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.

A.K. raised two due-process claims. First, he takes issue with the procedures the League used to deprive him of his alleged property interest in varsity athletics. Second, he contends that the League violated his substantive due- process rights.

The claim that the League violated A.K.’s procedural due-process rights has two elements. A.K. must plausibly plead that the League deprived him of a life, liberty, or property interest that the 14th Amendment protects, and that this deprivation was accomplished without an adequate process such as a hearing or other opportunity for review. 

“The question in this case,” wrote the court, “is whether the state-created interest in a public education extends not just to participation in interscholastic activities in general, but to participation in varsity athletics specifically.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court has noted that “participation in interscholastic activities” is “an important and integral facet of the youth’s education process.” Thompson v. Barnes, 294 Minn. 528, 200   921, 926 n.11 (Minn. 1972). 

“Thus, decisions of this court have found it likely that ‘Minnesota law gives students a legitimate entitlement to participate in interscholastic sports, and that students must therefore receive due process before they are excluded from such sports.’ J.K., 849 F. Supp. 2d at 877; see also Giblin, 1982 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10448, 1982 WL 963044, at *3. But no case in this District has definitively held that a student has a property interest in participation in varsity sports.

A.K. relied on case law in the district, where courts evaluated preliminary injunctive relief in the context of MSHSL eligibility, contending that “these decisions mean that there is a protectable property interest in varsity athletic participation.” Although according to the court, “Putting aside that all of the decisions involved a preliminary determination of likelihood of success on the merits, and thus made no final determination on the issue, none of the decisions is as pertinent to A.K.’s arguments as he asserts.” 

The court added that although a student’s “interest in participating in interscholastic sports is a substantial and cognizable one, … there is no clearly established right of parents to have their children compete in interscholastic athletics,” citing McFarlin v. Newport Special School District, 980 F.2d 1208, 1211 (8th Cir. 1992).

“The question whether Minnesota would recognize participation in interscholastic activities in general as a protectable property interest is a ‘difficult’ one,” wrote the court. “But the question whether Minnesota would recognize a property interest in participation varsity interscholastic athletics specifically is not. The answer to that question is ‘no.’

“And even assuming that participation in varsity interscholastic sports is a property interest, the deprivation of that property interest runs afoul of the Constitution only if it is accomplished without due process. Here, the League provides procedures to review a determination that a particular student is not eligible to participate in varsity athletics, and A.K. availed himself of those procedures. Due process does not require a favorable decision, only a decision rendered after giving the interested person notice and an opportunity to be heard. Pietsch v. Ward Cnty., 446 F. Supp. 3d 513, 538 (D.N.D. 2020). A.K. received all of the process he was due.”

Turning to the claim that the defendants violated his substantive due-process rights, the court noted that A.K. “must allege that [the League’s] action was ‘sufficiently outrageous’ or ‘truly irrational, that is, something more than . . . arbitrary, capricious, or in violation of state law.’” Young v. City of St. Charles, Mo., 244 F.3d 623, 628 (8th Cir. 2001) 

“Given the conclusion above that A.K. did not have a protected property interest in varsity athletic eligibility, he cannot establish any violation of his substantive due-process rights in the first instance. But even assuming he had such an interest, the League’s conduct here does not rise to the level required for a substantive due process claim.” See Riley v. St. Louis Cnty., 153 F.3d 627, 631 (8th Cir. 1998) 

A.K. v. Minnesota State High School League et al.; D. Minn.; Filed Civ. No. 23-1985 (PAM/JFD); 8/21/23

Articles in Current Issue