A federal judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has granted a youth sports association’s motion for summary judgment in a case where the disgruntled parent of a 12-year-old boy sued the association on state and federal Constitutional grounds for not allowing his son to transfer from one club team to another club.
The court found as a threshold matter that the plaintiff had not demonstrated that the defendants were a state actor in the controversy.
The impetus for the litigation was plaintiff Joseph Laudadio’s desire to have his son, Matthew Laudadio, transferred from the Wissahickon Lacrosse Club to another club that competed in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Youth Lacrosse Association. As part of SEPYLA rules, Matthew was required to obtain a waiver from the team he currently played for. The Wissahickon Club, however, denied his request for a waiver.
In response, Laudadio sued, alleging that the defendants violated Matthew’s rights under the Equal Protection clauses of both the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Constitution of the United States of America, and sought relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
As part of his claim, he alleged that other local players had been permitted to join non-local clubs in the absence of express permission from their local club. The plaintiff further alleged that clubs belonging to defendant SEPYLA play their lacrosse games on public fields. Thus, the plaintiff claimed he was entitled to relief.
The defendants filed a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, arguing that: “(1) plaintiff cannot demonstrate action by a state actor, and (2) plaintiff cannot establish a deprivation of a federal constitutional or statutory right.”
In its analysis, the court noted that in order to state a claim under Section 1983 a plaintiff must allege a deprivation of a ‘federal constitutional or statutory right by a state actor.’ Leshko v. Servis, 423 F.3d 337, 339 (3d Cir. 2005).
The plaintiff’s argument centered on the “’symbiotic relationship’ approach first delineated in Burton v. Wilmington Parking Auth., 365 U.S. 715, 81 S. Ct. 856, 6 L. Ed. 2d 45 (1961). However, the Court of Appeals has clearly stated that ‘while Burton remains good law, it was crafted for the unique set of facts presented and we will not expand its reach beyond facts that replicate what was before the Court in Burton.’ Crissman, 289 F.3d at 242. Most recently, the Court of Appeals has declined to find state action under Burton when ‘no tangible benefit flowed to’ the state from the defendants. Leshko, 423 F.3d at 341 (finding no state action even though the foster parent defendants ‘served the state and received government funds; so there may have been some mutual benefit’).”
“The plaintiff claimed that because “SEPYLA clubs played on public fields and may have received other public benefits, a finding of state action is warranted under Burton’s ‘symbiotic relationship’ test. However, I find no similarities between the facts of this case and those of Burton. Defendants’ gratuitous use of public fields is very different from the situation in Burton, where the rent paid by a private entity was essential to the financial viability of a government enterprise. 365 U.S. at 724. Moreover, plaintiff does not claim that any tangible benefit flowed to the state from defendants. See Leshko, 423 F.3d at 341. Hence, in accordance with the Court of Appeals precedent, I will decline to extend Burton beyond the set of facts unique to that case.
“In addition to plaintiff’s mistaken reliance on Burton, plaintiff also contends that defendants’ use of public fields is analogous to the receipt of public funds. Yet it is clearly established that a state ‘may subsidize private entities without assuming constitutional responsibility for their actions.’ San Francisco Arts & Athletics, Inc. v. United States Olympic Comm., 483 U.S. 522, 544, 107 S. Ct. 2971, 97 L. Ed. 2d 427 (1987). Moreover, the Supreme Court has declined to find state action even when virtually all of an operation’s income is from government funding. See Blum, 457 U.S. at 1011; Rendell-Baker, 457 U.S. at 840. Therefore, I find defendants’ use of public fields insufficient to demonstrate state action.”
The judge then played the what-if scenario, noting that even if the plaintiff could establish state action he would grant the motion to dismiss because the plaintiff could not demonstrate a violation of equal protection. “Plaintiff raises a ‘class of one’ equal protection claim. See Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562, 564, 120 S. Ct. 1073, 145 L. Ed. 2d 1060 (2000). To state a claim under that theory, plaintiff must allege that ‘he was intentionally treated differently from others similarly situated by the defendant and that there was no rational basis for such treatment.’ Phillips, 515 F.3d at 243.
“Here, plaintiff alleges in Count I that since defendant SEPYLA has allowed certain players to play for non-local clubs without a waiver or without requesting such a waiver to prevent Matthew from doing the same under similar circumstances is arbitrary, capricious and without a rational basis. In Count II, Plaintiff claims that defendant Wissahickon Club has allowed local players to play for non-local clubs, making its refusal to offer and/or to request such a waiver for Matthew also arbitrary, capricious and without a rational basis.
“As an initial matter, in Count II plaintiff has failed to sufficiently allege that he was treated differently from others similarly situated. Although plaintiff alleges that defendant Wissahickon Club has allowed certain players to play for non-local clubs plaintiff does not allege that Matthew is similarly situated to those same players. Id. at 244. Hence, I find that Count II fails to state a claim for violation of equal protection.
“Furthermore, plaintiff’s claim cannot pass the rational-basis threshold. Plaintiff concedes that Matthew is not a member of any protected or suspect class. Therefore, I must apply a highly deferential, rational-basis standard of review. Under rational-basis review, “the challenged classification must be upheld if there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for the classification.” Angstadt v. Midd-West Sch. Dist., 377 F.3d 338, 345 (3d Cir. 2004) (internal quotations omitted). Defendants assert that the waiver rule encourages the development of new youth lacrosse programs without jeopardizing existing programs by discouraging ‘team shopping.’ As defendants have put forth a rational basis for the rule as well as its application to Matthew, the complaint cannot defeat rational-basis review.”
Joseph Laudadio, in the capacity as guardian of Matthew Laudadio, v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Youth Lacrosse Association and Wissahickon Lacrosse Club; E.D. Pa.; CIVIL ACTION NO. 08-1525, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 33224; 4/23/08
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiffs) Charles V. Curley, Lead Attorney, Scott M. Rothman, Lead Attorney, Halberstadt Curley, LLC, Conshohocken, PA. (for defendants) Jeffrey L. Pettit, Lead Attorney, Phelan Pettit & Biedrzycki, Philadelphia, PA.