Plaintiff’s Constitutional Claim Fails after Bid To Coach Son

Mar 14, 2008

A federal judge has granted a state high school athletic association’s bid for summary judgment in a case where a coach argued that the association’s rule governing the amount of time that high school coaches can work with their present or future athletes during the school year was a violation of his equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The impetus for the claim was a Bellevue High School coach’s desire to coach his son’s “middle level” community football team without restrictions. The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association has promulgated a rule, however, that limits the amount of time that high school coaches may work with middle school athletes. This “out-of-season” rule allows high school football coaches to coach middle school students in their area for no more than 12 weeks during the high school football season. The community football team that plaintiff coaches has a 13-week and 4-day season, one week and four days longer than the period permitted by the out-of-season rule.
In 2006, the plaintiff sought a waiver of the out-of-season rule from WIAA because he was concerned that he would breach his coaching contract with Bellevue High School if he coached his son’s community team for 13 weeks and four days. When WIAA refused to grant a waiver, the plaintiff filed suit. Although that case was resolved through a settlement, WIAA’s Representative Assembly was not willing to amend the out-of-season rule to allow plaintiff to coach the community football team for its entire 2007 season.
The plaintiff sued.
The court summarized the following two claims made by the plaintiff: (1) a claim for violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; and (2) a claim for wrongful denial of a waiver.
“In considering a challenge under the Equal Protection Clause, the Court must first determine what level of scrutiny to apply to the challenged regulation,” wrote the court. “The two options are ‘rational basis’ review or ‘strict scrutiny.’ Most statutes are required to bear only a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental interest to withstand equal protection scrutiny. If, however, the statute affects a fundamental right or operates along suspect lines, the court will strictly scrutinize the regulation to ensure that it is narrowly tailored to promote a compelling state interest. See Central State Univ. v. Amer. Ass’n of Univ. Professors, 526 U.S. 124, 127-28, 119 S. Ct. 1162, 143 L. Ed. 2d 227 (1999); Nat’l Ass’n for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis v. Cal. Bd. of Psychology, 228 F.3d 1043, 1049 (9th Cir. 2000).
The court noted that the plaintiff “makes no real effort to show that the out-of-season rule affects a fundamental interest or that a suspect classification is involved. Courts, including this one, have rejected the notion that coaching or participation in interscholastic sports is a fundamental right. See Order Denying Plaintiff’s Motion for Mandatory Preliminary Injunction at 8-9; Schneeweis v. Jacobs, 771 F. Supp. 733, 738 (E.D. Va. 1991) (‘The law does not recognize a fundamental right to coach basketball.’); Fusato v. WIAA, 93 Wn. App. 762, 768, 970 P.2d 774 (1999) (‘Washington courts have recognized there is no fundamental right to engage in interscholastic sports.’); Angstadt v. Midd-West Sch. Dist., 377 F.3d 338, 344 n.2 (3d Cir. 2004) (‘There is no constitutionally protected right to play sports.’).
“Nor is there an unfettered right to the profession or employment of your choice. States are permitted to, and regularly do, impose restrictions on and barriers to various professions and occupations without triggering strict scrutiny. Dittman v. California, 191 F.3d 1020, 1031 n.5 (9th Cir. 1999) (‘The [Supreme] Court has never held that the ‘right’ to pursue a profession is a fundamental right, such that any state-sponsored barriers to entry would be subject to strict scrutiny.’) (emphasis in original); Amunrud v. Board of Appeals, 158 Wn.2d 208, 220, 143 P.3d 571 (2006) (‘[N]either this court nor the United States Supreme Court has characterized the right to pursue a particular profession as a fundamental right.’), cert. denied, U.S. , 127 S. Ct. 1844, 167 L. Ed. 2d 324 (2007).
“The plaintiff has also failed to show that the out-of-season rule is based on a suspect classification. The only classes of individuals identified by plaintiff in his response are those who coach in public high schools and those who coach in private high schools. Even if the rule has a disparate impact on high school coaches who are employed by public schools, plaintiff has provided no authority or logical argument in support of his theory that public school coaches are a protected class under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court therefore finds that plaintiff’s equal protection challenge to the out-of-season rule is subject to rational basis review.”
The court wrote that rational basis scrutiny “employs a relatively relaxed standard reflecting the Court’s awareness that the drawing of lines that create distinctions is peculiarly a legislative task and an unavoidable one. Perfection in making the necessary classification is neither possible nor necessary. Mass. Bd. of Ret, v. Murgia, 427 U.S. 307, 314, 96 S. Ct. 2562, 49 L. Ed. 2d 520 (1976). Courts applying the rational basis test should ‘presume the constitutionality of the statutory discriminations and require only that the classification challenged be rationally related to a legitimate state interest.’ City of New Orleans v. Dukes, 427 U.S. 297, 303, 96 S. Ct. 2513, 49 L. Ed. 2d 511 (1976).
“According to defendant, the out-of-season rule is designed to (1) allow students to participate in a variety of activities without pressure from a coach to dedicate all of their time in one particular sport or activity; (2) discourage sport specialization at an early age; (3) maintain a competitive balance by restricting all teams to a designated sports season; (4) protect students from early athletic burnout; (5) protect students from overuse injuries commonly found in youth sports; and (6) discourage coaches from recruiting athletes based on their athletic abilities. These interests are legitimate and WIAA could rationally believe that they would be furthered by the out-of-season rule. Dittman, 191 F.3d at 1031.
The court went on to note that the plaintiff believes that the rule would better achieve its stated purposes if it were rewritten to preclude coaches at private high schools from working with any middle school students who might ultimately choose to attend their high school.
“Perfection in a regulatory scheme is a worthy goal, but it is not constitutionally required. See Mass. Bd. of Ret., 427 U.S. at 314. WIAA has chosen to limit the coaching activities of public and private school coaches using the same geographic boundaries. Thus, football coaches at Roosevelt High School and O’Dea High School are both limited to twelve weeks of coaching middle level athletes within the boundaries of the Seattle Public School District. As a corollary, both coaches are permitted to travel to Bellevue or Shoreline or Bainbridge Island to coach middle level athletes. Plaintiff argues that this parallelism actually works to the private school’s advantage because an O’Dea coach working with middle school athletes in Shoreline is fairly likely to interact with students who may ultimately choose to attend O’Dea, whereas an RHS coach working with the same population is much less likely to be coaching a future RHS athlete. Whether the regulation could be improved is not the issue, however: if the out-of-season rule is rationally related to the legitimate state interests, which it is, it survives an equal protection challenge even if the distinctions are drawn ‘with substantially less than mathematical exactitude.’ City of New Orleans, 427 U.S. at 303. The Court finds that the out-of-season rule easily satisfies rational basis scrutiny, and plaintiff’s equal protection claim fails as a matter of law.”
The court also went on to find that WIAA’s rejection of plaintiff’s request for a waiver “was well within its discretion and does not constitute arbitrary or capricious agency action.”
Patrick A.T. Jones v. Washington Interscholastic Activities Association; W.D.Wa.; No. C07-711RSL; 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9085; 2/6/08
Attorneys of record: (for plaintiff) Marianne K Jones, LEAD ATTORNEY, JONES LAW GROUP, BELLEVUE, WA. (for defendant) John Robert Olson


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