By Shalom Samuels
Can high school athletes turn to the court if they believe that the Commission overseeing their sport has acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner? According to the West Virginia Supreme Court, the answer is no.
In March of 2020, L.M. (name restricted), a junior in Williamstown High School (“WHS”), was on the roster to play baseball for WHS for the 2019-2020 academic calendar. On March 13, 2020, West Virginia governor Jim Justice closed all West Virginia schools because of the Covid-19 global pandemic, and canceled all spring school sports.
L.M. did not want to miss out on his opportunity to finish his junior year, and the time it afforded him to apply to colleges and take college admissions tests, so he petitioned and received from the school board permission to reclassify as a junior when the school opened again in-person. As for his baseball career, he turned to the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission (“WVSSAC”) for permission to play the two remaining years of his high school tenure and waiver of the Semester and Season Rule. WVSSAC’s Semester and Season Rule provides that “a student may…participate in the interscholastic program for four consecutive years (eight consecutive semesters)…after entering the 9th grade.” W. Va. C.S.R. § 127-2-5.1 (eff. 2020). By a letter dated August 27, 2021, the WVSSAC denied L.M.’s request for a waiver of the Semester and Season Rule, leaving L.M. with only one more year of baseball. L.M. then appealed to the VSSAC’s Board of Review which also denied the request for waiver on December 8, 2021.
In January of 2022, L.M., through his parents, filed a lawsuit in the Ritchie County Circuit Court for an injunction against the WVSSAC, stating that the WVSSAC acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner, and that they improperly looked at extraneous evidence not submitted as part of the official administrative proceedings. On March 7, 2022, the circuit court granted the motion and prevented the WVSSAC from enforcing the Semester and Season Rule against L.M.. WVSSAC appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court for a writ of prohibition.
The West Virginia Supreme Court first noted that the case was technically moot, as the injunction was to allow L.M. to play during the Spring 2021 semester, which had already passed. However, because a similar issue may arise and, because of the nature of the appellate process, will likely be mooted before it arrives to the West Virginia Supreme Court, the Court allowed it to proceed. See Syl. pt. 1, Israel by Israel v. W. Va. Secondary Schs. Activities Comm’n, 182 W. Va. 454, 388 S.E.2d 480 (1989).
The Court then turned to L.M.’s argument that the manner in which the WVSSAC applied the Semester and Season Rule was “capricious and arbitrary.” The Court held that “decisions properly within the purview of the legislative grant of authority to the West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission under West Virginia Code § 18-2-25 (2008), such as the application of WVSSAC Rules and the review of calls or rulings made by game officials, are not subject to judicial review.” State ex rel. W. Va. Secondary Sch. Activity Comm’n v. Webster, 228 W. Va. 75, 717 S.E.2d 859 (2011). L.M. was not alleging that the rule itself was unfair, but only its application, and because its application was within the purview of WVSSAC’s legislative grant of authority, it was not subject to judicial review. As such, the Court granted the WVSSAC’s writ of prohibition.
The Court also looked at L.M.’s second claim, that the WVSSAC had improperly looked at extraneous evidence, but declined to rule on the matter, because the extraneous evidence was not presented to the Court nor was evidence of its proceedings, which is required to ascertain the sufficiency of the grounds for asserted relief. See State ex rel. W. Va. Secondary Sch. Activity Comm’n v. Webster, 228 W. Va. 75, 717 S.E.2d 859 (2011).