Injunction Junction

Gaining temporary protection from a court is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

One of the major problems with the court system in the United States is the amount of time it takes for a case to get to trial. In order to ensure that both sides are allowed to discover the facts and legal issues involved in a case, as well as negotiate any potential settlements, it is not unusual for a year to pass before a case reaches the courtroom. While this extended discovery period may ensure that both sides get a fair hearing, it can also present problems in cases that are time-sensitive, such as high school sports cases -- situations featuring short competitive seasons and students who move in and out of schools every three or four years.

In order to protect individuals against any irreparable harm such delays could cause, the U.S. courts are allowed to grant preliminary injunctive relief providing preventive or protective aid. In other words, the courts can take a quick look at the facts of the case and grant one or both sides temporary protection so they do not suffer further injury while the case is working its way through the court system. In order for a court to grant such relief, it must consider the following questions:

  1. Does the person asking for the injunction have a strong probability of winning the case?
  2. Has the person proven that he or she will sustain an irreparable injury if the injunction is not granted?
  3. Is it in the public's interest to grant injunctive relief?

Only if the person requesting an injunction can answer all three in the affirmative will the court grant the relief.

A recent case, Ingram v. Toledo City School District Board of Education [339 F. Supp. 2d 998 (2004)], provides athletics administrators with a useful demonstration of the important role injunctive relief can play in legal proceedings. David Ingram played football at Start High School, a public institution that is part of Toledo (Ohio) Public Schools. In grammar school, Ingram was diagnosed with a learning disability, and under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), his school and teachers were required to develop an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for him.

During the spring of his junior year, Ingram failed English, a class he needed to pass in order to be eligible to play on the school's football team the following season. Ingram received his failing grade because he did not hand in all of his assignments and did not pass the final exam. Ingram, however, was allowed to take his final exam without following the requirements of his IEP.

Because of an administrative issue between Ingram and the school (an unpaid bill), the high school withheld his final spring grades from him. Since he did not receive his grades, Ingram was unaware that he was ineligible, and began practicing with the football team in late summer. The issue of his grades was not discovered until his tutor informed him that he had failed the English class he had taken during the spring. Once he discovered the problem, Ingram brought his case to the attention of an Impartial Hearing Officer (IHO), pleading that Start High School failed to provide the proper testing accommodations as outlined in his IEP. In determining that Ingram should be allowed to make up the missed work and retake his exam, the IHO found that requiring a student with a learning disability to ask for testing accommodations before the institution offers them is in direct opposition to the purpose of IDEA. The IHO, therefore, ordered Start High School to hold an IEP meeting where a plan of action would be devised wherein Ingram would make up the missed work and his football eligibility would be reevaluated. After retaking the exam, this time under the terms of his IEP, and after handing in his missing work, Ingram managed to earn a passing grade.

Although the IHO ruling seemingly allowed Ingram to participate in football for his high school, midway through his senior season the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) declared him ineligible under its "no makeup work" rule. Ingram was in violation of OHSAA Bylaw 4-4-6, which does not allow students to use summer school or other scholastic opportunities to substitute for the failure to meet the organization's academic standards. While there is an exception to this rule (Bylaw 4-4-7, which states that additional time or help will be accepted if the student-athlete's failure was due to illness or accident confirmed by a doctor), the OHSAA was not willing to apply the exception for Ingram. Therefore, even though the IDEA required the school to allow Ingram to retake the exam and his new grade restored his eligibility, under OHSAA rules he was still ineligible. If the school allowed him to play, it would be forced to forfeit any games in which he appeared.

In an effort to continue playing football without repercussions from the OHSAA, Ingram petitioned the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals for preliminary injunctive relief.

In determining whether to grant the injunction, the court examined the previously noted three-part test. First, did Ingram have a strong likelihood of success? In ruling that he did, the Sixth Circuit found that the intent of the OHSAA rules was to provide basic fairness. But the court found that by applying these rules against Ingram and Start High School, the OHSAA had acted unreasonably. While acknowledging that Ingram was partially to blame for his failing grade in English, the court also noted that the IHO found Start High School to be more culpable for Ingram's failure than Ingram. The court concluded that failing was beyond Ingram's power, and that Ingram's situation was similar to the circumstances surrounding illness and accidents that are awarded exceptions by OHSAA.

The second part of the test required the court to determine whether Ingram would suffer irreparable harm if he were not allowed to play football -- or whether, if he were permitted to play, there would be any substantial harm caused to others. In finding for Ingram, the court pointed to the fact that Ingram had received letters from college football recruiters. If he were unable to play, his chances of getting a college scholarship were greatly diminished. Moreover, the court concluded that since it was likely that the only way Ingram would be able to attend college was on an athletic scholarship, his inability to play would prevent him from receiving any kind of college education.

As for whether the OHSAA or anyone else would suffer a substantial injury if Ingram were allowed to play the last three games of his high school football career, the court held that since the exception to allow Ingram to play was on the same level as the exception to allow anyone to make up work after illness or an accident, the inherent nature of the OHSAA bylaws would not be harmed. Also, since the decision was made by an IHO, the OHSAA would not have to take responsibility for allowing the exception, a situation that would set a precedent for future students trying to get around the law.

The final element of the test required the court to determine whether finding for Ingram would be in the public interest. In granting Ingram's request, the Sixth Circuit held that as a matter of public policy, allowing Ingram to make up work under the conditions of his IEP in no way amounted to granting him special treatment. In fact, the court ruled that Ingram's IEP only leveled the playing field between him and students without learning disabilities. In the end, the court concluded that preventing a student from reaching his full potential was not in the public's interest.

Although Ingram was able to get an injunction to complete his senior season (at which point the case was moot), it is important to note that the courts have generally been reluctant to overturn the bylaws and regulations of high school athletic associations and other voluntary athletic associations unless they violate constitutional law or public policy, or if they are found to have been enforced in an arbitrary or capricious manner. The OHSAA has every right to create and enforce its own rules and regulations, so long as the association interprets them fairly and reasonably.

About the authors: Attorney John T. Wolohan is an associate professor of sports law and chair of the Department of Sport Management & Media at Ithaca College, where Virginia Wenclawiak is a junior majoring in sports media.

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