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St. Paul's Episcopal School v. Alabama High School Athletic Association

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

June 27, 2018




         This matter comes before the Court on plaintiff's Motion for Preliminary Injunction (doc. 2). The Motion, which has been the subject of extensive briefing on an expedited basis, is now ripe for disposition.[1]

         I. Overview of Decision.

         Last November, the Alabama High School Athletic Association adopted a “competitive balance factor” rule to increase by one level the classification of certain private-school members' sports teams with a demonstrated track record of consistent, recent success. St. Paul's Episcopal School stands to be directly affected by this rule in the 2018-2020 classification period with respect to several of its athletic programs, including most notably its football team, which will “level up” from 5A to 6A. After its attempts to persuade the Association to vacate or suspend the rule at two board hearings earlier this year were unsuccessful, St. Paul's filed this civil action against the Association and its Executive Director. The Complaint alleges that the Association violated St. Paul's constitutional rights in three respects (equal protection, substantive due process, procedural due process) and also breached certain obligations and duties in its Constitution, Bylaws and Handbook.

         Contemporaneously with the Complaint, St. Paul's filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction, seeking an order preliminarily restraining and enjoining the Association from enforcing this new competitive balance rule. Given the time-sensitive nature of the relief requested, the parties briefed the matter on an expedited basis. Counsel for both sides are to be commended for preparing comprehensive, well-written, helpful memoranda addressing complex constitutional and factual issues under extraordinary temporal pressure. Regardless of the Court's ultimate determinations about the merits of the theories and arguments presented, the quality of lawyering has been uniformly excellent. The Court's analysis and understanding has benefited greatly from counsel's diligent and thoughtful advocacy.

         Upon careful consideration of the parties' arguments and exhibits, the Court concludes that preliminary injunctive relief is not appropriate at this time. A preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy, for which a movant bears a heavy burden of persuasion. In this case, St. Paul's has failed to demonstrate a substantial likelihood of success on the merits. With respect to the equal protection claim, St. Paul's has made an insufficient showing that the Association was motivated by “bare animus” against private schools; therefore, the challenged classification must be evaluated using deferential rational-basis review. Under this standard, the competitive balance rule is presumed constitutional, and must be upheld if any reasonably conceivable set of facts could provide a rational basis for it, even if the rule seems unwise and even though it works to a particular group's disadvantage. The AHSAA has a legitimate interest in promoting competitive balance for its members. The challenged rule could rationally be viewed as furthering that legitimate interest. Indeed, the requisite rational basis may be found in data reflecting private schools' disproportionate and ever-growing success in winning state championships, as well as in the numerous perceived advantages enjoyed by private schools relative to public schools. St. Paul's has not shown a substantial likelihood that it can negate every one of those rational grounds for adoption of the competitive balance rule.

         As for plaintiff's substantive due process claim, no substantial likelihood of success has been shown. The property rights identified by St. Paul's are shaky, at best. The proper standard of review for this claim is the same deferential rational-basis test utilized in the equal protection context, so St. Paul's can be no more successful on a substantive due process theory than it can on equal protection. St. Paul's attempt to seek heightened review on the grounds that the Association acted with “deliberate indifference to an extremely great risk of serious injury” cannot succeed (even assuming the legitimacy of that formulation of the standard in this Circuit) because the record does not support a finding that the Association callously, recklessly adopted this rule without heed of dire safety consequences. Next, plaintiff's procedural due process claim fails to provide a sufficient basis for preliminary injunctive relief because the record strongly suggests that the Association provided St. Paul's with ample and constitutionally adequate procedural safeguards, including allowing it to appear before the board twice to make its case against the competitive balance rule before it went into effect. Finally, no preliminary injunctive relief is warranted on St. Paul's state-law declaratory judgment claim because the various “duties” and “obligations” that plaintiff ascribes to the Association either appear not to be required by any contract or mutually explicit understanding, or do not appear to have been breached by passage of the competitive balance rule.

         Today's ruling is in many ways a reflection of the daunting hurdle that a plaintiff in St. Paul's position must overcome in order to obtain preliminary injunctive relief. It is not the role of this Court to decide whether the competitive balance rule is the wisest, fairest, best or most efficient way of advancing the objective of promoting competitive balance in interscholastic athletics. Whether the Court thinks it is a good rule or a bad rule is irrelevant. This Court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Association. Moreover, the Alabama Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized the AHSAA's near-absolute authority in its own affairs. A courtroom is rarely the proper field for competition when it comes to disputes over high-school athletic rules. Alabama courts take a hands-off approach to controversies concerning regulation of high-school athletics, at least in the absence of clear and convincing evidence of fraud, collusion, bias or arbitrariness. It does not appear substantially likely that any of those factors are present here. For these reasons, the Court finds that St. Paul's has not shown a substantial likelihood that the competitive balance rule is unconstitutional, or that it violates the terms of the Association's Constitution, Bylaws and Handbook. The Motion for Preliminary Injunction is properly denied.

         II. Background Facts.

         A. The Parties' Relationship and History.

         The Alabama High School Athletic Association (“AHSAA”) is a voluntary association comprising public, private and parochial schools in the State of Alabama. (Savarese Decl. (doc. 24, Exh. B), ¶ 2.) The stated purpose of the AHSAA, which was founded in 1921, is to regulate, coordinate and promote its member schools' interscholastic athletic programs. (Id.) At present, the AHSAA's membership includes 373 public schools and 51 non-public schools, such that non-public schools constitute 13.6% of the Association's total membership. (Id., ¶ 5.) Among those members is plaintiff, St. Paul's Episcopal School, a private school located in Mobile, Alabama. St. Paul's has been a member of the AHSAA since 1976. (Ingram Aff. (doc. 24, Exh. A), ¶ 24 & Exh. A-21.) A bona fide dispute has arisen between St. Paul's and AHSAA relating to certain athletic classification rules adopted by the AHSAA, to-wit: (i) a provision called the “Multiplier Rule” that was adopted in 1999; and (ii) a provision called the “Competitive Balance Factor” that was adopted in November 2017. Plaintiff's pending Motion for Preliminary Injunction seeks an order restraining and enjoining the AHSAA from enforcing the Competitive Balance Factor rule against any of the Association's private school members.

         At the beginning of each school year, the AHSAA promulgates the AHSAA Handbook, which compiles its Constitution, Bylaws and current rules and regulations in one location. (Savarese Decl., ¶ 4.) All member schools agree to be bound by the Constitution, Bylaws and rules set forth in the Handbook. (Id., ¶ 6.) The Handbook confirms that “[m]ajor aims of the AHSAA are to serve the needs of its member schools in conducting their interscholastic athletic programs and to assist member schools in reaching the educational objectives as established by their school systems.” (Id., ¶ 4 & Exh. B-1 at 94.) According to the AHSAA's Constitution, “[t]he object of this Association shall be to promote pure amateur athletic competition in the high schools of Alabama.” (Doc. 24, Exh. B-1 at 16.) The Constitution provides that management of the AHSAA's affairs is vested in a Legislative Counsel and a Central Board of Control. (Id. at 17.) The Central Board “shall have the power to classify member schools into two or more divisions for the purpose of athletic competition, ” and “shall have authority over any matter related to championship play.” (Id. at 20.) The AHSAA Constitution further provides that rulings made by the AHSAA's Executive Director may be appealed to the Central Board, which “has the authority to make the final decision on any case appealed to it.” (Id. at 22.)

         Pursuant to the Handbook, “High schools are divided into seven classifications (1A, 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A, 6A and 7A) for competition in championship programs.” (Id. at 88.) As a general proposition, “Classification is based on Average Daily Membership (ADM) figures furnished by the State Department of Education for the upper three grades plus ninth grade students that are retained in the ninth grade.” (Id.) For the 2018-2020 classification period, the relevant ranges of enrollment for AHSAA classification purposes include the following: (i) 4A, 297.9 to 377.45; (ii) 5A, 377.95 to 604.15; (iii) 6A, 605.7 to 1045.6; and (iv) 7A, 1046.55 to 2176.8. (Doc. 17, Exh. 5.) St. Paul's has a “true” (i.e., unadjusted) enrollment of 310 students, which would place it near the bottom of the range for 4A classification. (Mask Aff. (doc. 17, Exh. 2), ¶ 3.) Under the challenged rules, however, St. Paul's has been classified by the AHSAA as 5A since the year 2000, and is slated to be classified as 6A in several sports (including, most notably, football) for the next four years, beginning in fall 2018. St. Paul's dissatisfaction with that classification result and its desire for an injunction preventing the AHSAA from implementing and enforcing it lie at the heart of the Complaint and the Motion for Preliminary Injunction.

         B. The 1.35 Student Multiplier Rule.

         In 1999, the AHSAA's Central Board received proposals from five public-school members, requesting that non-public schools be excluded from competing in playoffs and/or state championship games. (Savarese Decl., ¶¶ 10-11.) Under these proposals, postseason play in the AHSAA would effectively be split, with public schools competing against public schools and private schools competing on a separate track against private schools. A stated rationale for these proposals was that “non-public schools can pick and choose their student enrollment whereas public schools cannot.” (Id., ¶ 10.) Surveys revealed that these proposals were favored by more than 70% of the Association's members. (Id., ¶¶ 10-11.) In response to the members' concerns over private-school advantages, and in the interest of avoiding a split in postseason play, the Central Board approved an alternate proposal, under which a 1.35 multiplier would be used for each non-public school student to calculate adjusted enrollment for classification purposes (the “Multiplier Rule”). (Id., ¶ 13.) Whereas each public-school student would count as one student for classification purposes, each private-school student would count as 1.35 students. The AHSAA Handbook summarizes this rule as follows: “An index of 1.35 is used to determine the enrollment figure for classifying each private school member. Each private school student counts 1.35 for classification purposes.” (Doc. 24, Exh. B-1 at 88.)

         Upon implementation of the Multiplier Rule in 2000, 15 of the AHSAA's 29 non-public school members moved up at least one classification level. (Savarese Decl., ¶ 29.) One of those schools was St. Paul's, which ascended from 4A to 5A in all sports by operation of the Multiplier Rule. Despite being elevated in this manner, St. Paul's continued to excel in interscholastic athletic competition in many sports. For example, in football, St. Paul's has achieved a 165-61 overall record (for a winning percentage of .730) during the 18 seasons it has played at 5A, including 15 trips to the playoffs and state championships in 2007, 2014, 2015, and 2017. (Doc. 24, Exh. A-21.) From 2011-2017, St. Paul's football was particularly dominant against other 5A schools, with a gaudy record of 63-9 (for a winning percentage of .875) in head-to-head competition. (Id.)[2]

         More broadly, non-public schools continued to win state championships at a much higher rate than their approximately 13% membership percentage in the AHSAA, even after implementation of the Multiplier Rule. From 2011-2016, AHSAA non-public schools won 38.1% of state championships in boys' sports, and 36.6% of state championships in girls' sports. (Savarese Decl., ¶¶ 15-16.) These outcomes raised substantial questions as to whether the Multiplier Rule went far enough to effectuate competitive balance within the AHSAA. A rational inference drawn from non-public schools' continued outsized success was that inherent advantages accruing to non-public school members were so pronounced that the Multiplier Rule was insufficient to offset those advantages and level the playing field.[3]

         The internal and external pressure for AHSAA to take further steps to bring about competitive balance within the Association's ranks intensified in spring 2016, when a bill was introduced in the Alabama legislature that, if passed, would have segregated postseason and championship play, with public schools competing only against public schools and private schools competing only against private schools. (Id., ¶ 19.)[4] A similar bill surfaced in spring 2017. (Savarese Decl., ¶ 23.) Each time, the AHSAA's Executive Director appeared before the House Education Committee to defend the current system, in which private- and public-school members can and routinely do compete head-to-head in postseason and championship play. (Id., ¶¶ 19, 23.)

         C. The Competitive Balance Factor Rule.

         The AHSAA's Central Board was keenly aware of the growing sentiment that the Multiplier Rule was insufficient to remedy perceived competitive imbalances between private schools and public schools. In April 2015, the Central Board formed a committee to study the Multiplier Rule and potential solutions for engendering a competitive balance between public and non-public member schools. (Hardin Aff. (doc. 24, Exh. E), ¶ 3.) Among the Central Board's stated reasons for assembling such a committee were the following concerns about differences between, and advantages and disadvantages of, public schools and private schools: (i) data revealing far higher sport participation percentages at private schools versus public schools; (ii) the disproportionate percentage of state championships won by non-public schools, at roughly triple their AHSAA membership share; (iii) the fact that non-public schools can use a selective process to control enrollment, while public schools cannot; (iv) the ability of non-public schools to cap enrollment, whereas public schools cannot; (v) the fact that certain non-public schools may not face salary constraints for coaching staff and constraints on number of coaching positions; (vi) the fact that certain non-public schools do not operate under budget restraints for facilities, as public schools often do; (vii) the fact that the Alabama Accountability Act provides financial assistance for non-public schools; and (viii) the difference in attendance zones, with non-public schools being able to draw students from multiple public schools' zones, whereas public schools have narrower zones. (Id.)

         Pursuant to the Central Board's decision, a 15-member Classification Committee was convened in 2016. Five members of this committee were representatives of non-public schools, including the Committee Co-Chair, Anthony McCall, Athletic Director at The Montgomery Academy, and Tony Havard, Head of School at UMS-Wright in Mobile, Alabama, whose campus is located just two miles from St. Paul's. (Massey Aff. (doc. 24, Exh. D), ¶¶ 3-4.)[5]Between September 2016 and June 2017, the Classification Committee met on six occasions to review championship data, study classification modifications implemented by other states, and debate challenges and possible solutions relating to the classification of public and non-public schools. (Id., ¶¶ 5-11; McCall Aff. (doc. 24, Exh. G), ¶¶ 5-8.) Uncontroverted evidence reflects that the Classification Committee meetings were conducted in an open and honest manner, fostering a productive dialogue in which each participant had a voice and members worked diligently to study these issues and identify the best possible solution. (Massey Aff., ¶¶ 12, 14, 16; McCall Aff., ¶¶ 10-13.)[6]

         On June 15, 2017, the Classification Committee unanimously voted to recommend a plan called the Competitive Balance Factor (“CBF”) to the AHSAA Central Board. (Massey Aff., ¶ 11.) In its final form, the CBF included the following salient features: (i) retention of the 1.35 enrollment multiplier for non-public schools; (ii) implementation of a competitive balance factor that takes effect when a non-public school team achieves a threshold level of points based on the team's overall finish for each of the previous three seasons; and (iii) if the total number of points exceeds the designated threshold (which varies depending on the sport) for the previous three years, then that particular team would “level up” one class. (Doc. 1, Exh. B.)[7] The CBF has no ceiling, so a team could potentially ascend one class every classification period. (Id.)

         The Classification Committee chose to recommend the CBF as a means of leveling the playing field and redressing perceived competitive imbalances in the AHSAA between public school and non-public school members. The Committee selected the CBF over other alternatives, such as increasing the 1.35 multiplier to 1.85 or 2.25, because it concluded that the CBF “would more effectively, fairly and accurately address the disproportionate percentage of state championships won by the non-public schools.” (Massey Aff., ¶ 13.) Supporting data bears out this conclusion; indeed, the CBF, as designed, will alter the classification of only 85 of 820 (or 10.4%) of all non-public school teams. (Id.)

         On July 26, 2017, the Classification Committee Chair, Matt Massey, appeared before the AHSAA's Central Board and explained that the Committee had unanimously recommended adoption of a CBF for the 2018-20 classification period. (Hardin Aff., ¶ 5.) Massey showed that the Committee had engaged in exhaustive and thorough studies, analyses and discussions of various options, after which the Central Board reviewed and debated the recommendation in detail. (Id.) On November 13, 2017, the Central Board met again and further discussed the proposed CBF. (Id., ¶ 6.) The Central Board concluded that the CBF plan was preferable to increasing the multiplier because the latter option would affect a far greater number of non-public member schools. (Id.) On that basis, the Central Board voted unanimously to approve the CBF for the 2018-20 classification period, reasoning that it provided for “fair, equal, competitive opportunities for all schools and not just those that have consistently won in the quarterfinal, semifinal, or championship level in their class.” (Id.) The Central Board's stated “hope” is that the CBF will allow all AHSAA teams to “compete on as fair a level of competition as possible.” (Id., ¶ 7.) The Classification Committee is scheduled to reconvene at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 school year to review data. (Id., ¶ 8.)[8]

         D. Plaintiff's Objections and Appeal.

         As noted, the CBF plan affected only a small minority (roughly 10%) of non-public member schools' teams. However, the impacts on St. Paul's are far more pronounced. Under the CBF, St. Paul's football, volleyball, boys' golf, boys' and girls' indoor track, boys' and girls' outdoor track, boys' and girls' cross-country, boys' and girls' soccer, boys' and girls' tennis, and boys' and girls' swimming teams all move up one level from 5A to 6A for the 2018-20 classification period. (Doc. 24, Exh. A-14 at 72-75.) St. Paul's other teams, including baseball, softball, and basketball, will remain at the 5A level after application of the CBF. (Id.) Recall that on a “true, ” unadjusted enrollment basis (excluding the Multiplier Rule's effects), St. Paul's teams would be competing in the 4A classification.

         On January 19, 2018, St. Paul's Head of School, N. Blair Fisher, sent an email to Savarese requesting that St. Paul's representatives be allowed to attend the AHSAA's January 31 meeting and “to be placed upon the meeting agenda.” (Doc. 24, Exh. B-4.) Fisher indicated that “we would like to gain a better understanding of the recently adopted ‘Competitive Balance Rule.'” (Id.) At Savarese's request, Fisher re-submitted the request on St. Paul's letterhead dated January 22, 2018. In that letter, Fisher identified the St. Paul's representatives who would be attending, indicated that only he and Athletic Director Steve Mask wished to address the AHSAA Board, stated that St. Paul's wished to have its school counsel attend, and requested access to certain documents and records in advance. (Doc. 24, Exh. B-6.) Savarese responded via letter dated January 23, 2018, that St. Paul's had been placed on the agenda for the January 31 Board meeting, that St. Paul's would be allowed 10-15 minutes to make a presentation, and that only school personnel would be permitted to address the Board. (Doc. 1, Exh. C.) On January 31, St. Paul's representatives Fisher and Mask did, in fact, appear before the Central Board and expressed their concerns about the CBF. (Savarese Decl., ¶ 29.) Upon articulating their objections, Fisher and Mask requested that the CBF be vacated or, at a minimum, that its application be suspended “to allow more time for analysis and thoughtful reconsideration.” (Doc. 24, Exh. B-8.)

         The AHSAA invited St. Paul's to register an appeal of the adoption of the CBF rule. On February 8, 2018, Fisher again wrote to Savarese to accept that invitation and express St. Paul's desire to lodge an immediate appeal. (Id.) Savarese responded by letter dated February 12, 2018, confirming that St. Paul's request for hearing had been granted and that the matter had been set for March 13, 2018. (Doc. 24, Exh. B-9.) The February 12 letter notified St. Paul's that (i) only the Central Board would hear the appeal; (ii) Article VII of the AHSAA Constitution conferred on the Central Board complete and final jurisdiction over all questions of the Constitution and Bylaws appealed by a member school, and also granted the Central Board the power to classify member schools into divisions for athletic competition; and (iii) St. Paul's would be allowed 10-15 minutes to make its presentation, and only school personnel may address the Board. (Id.)

         At the March 13 hearing, Fisher and Mask appeared before the Central Board and presented a 38-page PowerPoint presentation, culminating in two specific alternative proposals. (Savarese Decl., ¶ 32.)[9] Following St. Paul's presentation, the Central Board deliberated and then denied the appeal. (Id.) On March 14, 2018, Savarese sent a letter to St. Paul's thanking the school for its presentation, recognizing its “formal appeal to vacate or suspend the [CBF] for a period of two years, ” and announcing that “[f]ollowing a review of the information provided and considerable discussion, the Central Board of Control voted unanimously to deny the appeal and uphold the Constitution of the AHSAA.” (Doc. 24, Exh. B-11.)

         III. Claims Asserted and Relief Sought.

         Two months after denial of its appeal, St. Paul's filed a 56-page Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief (doc. 1) against the AHSAA and Savarese (solely in his official capacity) in this District Court. The Complaint asserted three federal constitutional claims against the Association pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[10] Count I is framed as an equal protection claim, alleging that the AHSAA's adoption of the CBF was motivated by “bare animus, and the classification (i.e., public vs. private) was not rationally related to any legitimate purpose.” (Doc. 1, ¶ 137.) St. Paul's alleges that the AHSAA's “actual motivation” for the new rule was “a bare desire to harm and disadvantage private schools (a politically unpopular and disfavored group), to appease certain public school officials and lawmakers, and thereby protect the Association's authority over high school athletics.” (Id., ¶ 138.)

         In Count II of the Complaint, St. Paul's maintains that defendants deprived it of its constitutional right to substantive due process. To support this theory, St. Paul's pleads that it is entitled to constitutionally protected rights, such as the right to have the AHSAA promulgate rules in a manner that does not substantially increase the risk of harm to student-athletes, the right to have the AHSAA exercise its power to classify in a manner that does not penalize private schools, the right to have the AHSAA create an environment of “pure” competition, the right to have the AHSAA promote private-school and public-school athletic programs equally, the right to have its student-athletes' achievements judged equally with those of student-athletes at public schools, and the right not to be treated unequally from public schools. (Doc. 1, ¶ 143.) St. Paul's posits that these purported “entitlements” were “created by express and/or implied contracts and mutually explicit understandings” between the AHSAA and its constituent member schools. (Id., ¶ 144.)

         Count III of the Complaint is framed as a § 1983 claim grounded in procedural due process. In this count, St. Paul's recites the same list of purported “entitlements” set forth in Count II, then alleges that defendants deprived it of those rights “without due process, including notice and an opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner, and by applying the CBF in an ex post facto manner.” (Id., ¶ 154.)

         Finally, in Count Four of the Complaint, St. Paul's brings a state-law claim for declaratory relief, seeking a declaration that the AHSAA adopted the CBF “in direct violation of the rights, interests, and expectations of its private school members, under the Association Handbook, Constitution, and Bylaws.” (Id., ¶ 161.)

         Contemporaneously with its Complaint, St. Paul's filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction and Request for Expedited Hearing (doc. 2). In that Motion, St. Paul's requests three forms of preliminary injunctive relief, to-wit: (i) an order that the AHSAA “be preliminarily restrained, enjoined, and prohibited from enforcing the CBF against any private school member;” (ii) an order that the AHSAA “classify its member schools for the 2018-2020 classification period using true, unadjusted enrollment;”[11] and (3) alternatively, an order that the AHSAA “indefinitely suspend enforcement of the CBF … until the CBF undergoes a comprehensive study by independent medical experts, the results of which shall be subject to meaningful opportunity for review and comment by the Association's member schools, and approved by this Court.” (Doc. 2, at 30.) The Motion has now been briefed on an expedited basis.

         IV. Analysis.

         A. Legal Standard for Preliminary Injunctive Relief.

         A preliminary injunction may be entered only if the movant clearly establishes each of the following requirements: “(1) a substantial likelihood of success on the merits; (2) a substantial threat of irreparable injury; (3) that the threatened injury to the plaintiff outweighs the potential harm to the defendant; and (4) that the injunction will not disserve the public interest.” Keister v. Bell, 879 F.3d 1282, 1287 (11th Cir. 2018); see also American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Inc. v. Miami-Dade County School Board, 557 F.3d 1177, 1198 (11th Cir. 2009) (similar). In applying this legal standard, the Court recognizes that “[a] preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy not to be granted unless the movant clearly establishes the burden ...

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