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Common Pleas Court Can Consider Challenge to High School Sports’ Competitive Balance Rule

Image of several arms raising a trophy into the air (vchal/iStock)

Supreme Court allows challenge to high school sports playoff rules to proceed.

Image of several arms raising a trophy into the air (vchal/iStock)

Supreme Court allows challenge to high school sports playoff rules to proceed.

A Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge can consider a Catholic high school athletic league’s challenge to the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) “competitive balance rules,” which help determine which divisions high schools compete in for state championships, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

Roger Bacon High School and the eight-member Greater Catholic League Coed (GCL Coed) filed a lawsuit claiming they are unfairly impacted by rules that went into effect for the 2017-2018 school year. In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court denied OHSAA’s attempt to block Judge Robert P. Ruehlman from further considering the schools’ challenge to the competitive balance rules.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice R. Patrick DeWine stated that the common pleas court had jurisdiction over the case because the subject matter of the dispute is within the jurisdiction of the common pleas court and no other court or government agency has exclusive jurisdiction to hear the claim. Justice DeWine cautioned that while Judge Ruehlman may consider the case, the Supreme Court is not deciding whether the common pleas court can grant the relief sought by the schools.

Last year, the Supreme Court granted OHSAA an emergency stay two weeks after the trial court granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) that  stayed application of the competitive balance rules as to the GCL Coed schools. The emergency stay effectively allowed the competitive balance rules to remain in place until today’s decision. Today’s ruling lifts the stay, leaving the TRO in effect until Judge Ruehlman decides whether to grant a preliminary injunction. If the GCL schools ultimately prevail in the trial court, OHSAA will be able to challenge that decision through the traditional appeal process.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Judith L. French, Patrick F. Fischer, and Melody J. Stewart joined Justice DeWine’s opinion.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor dissented, writing the TRO will cause “immediate harm to a large number of third parties across the state, namely, many, if not all of the 809 high schools” that are members of the association, but are not contesting the rule. She maintained that because the TRO was based on a clear misapplication of the law, and will cause widespread harm to third parties that will not be redressed by any appeal from the trial court due to the short duration of high school sports seasons, OHSAA should not be forced to go through the traditional appeal process and the trial court should not continue to hear the case.

Justice Michael P. Donnelly joined the chief justice’s dissent.

Conference Objects to Feeder School Rule
OHSAA is a voluntary, private organization overseeing the athletic competition of more than 1,600 public and private junior and senior high schools. In reaction to complaints that private schools were winning a disproportionate number of state high school championships, OHSAA began discussing new “competitive balance rules” in 2010, and adopted a version of the rules in 2014.

Traditionally, the association assigned schools to postseason competition divisions based on the number of boys and girls enrolled at each school. Some OHSAA members complained that one reason private schools win more championships is that they draw students from a wider geographic area than public schools.

OHSAA developed the competitive balance rules to determine the divisions for eight of the 26 sports it regulates, including football, soccer, basketball, and volleyball. Under the formula, a private school is allowed a limited number of “feeder” junior high and middle schools. The feeder schools must be from the same “system of education,” such as the Catholic Conference of Ohio, and located within a single designated public school district attendance zone. If a student did not attend the seventh or eighth grade at a designated feeder school, then the high school’s enrollment count would be adjusted. For instance, if a Catholic high school enrolls a basketball player who did not attend seventh or eighth grade at one of that high school’s designated feeder schools, one extra student is added to the enrollment count for purposes of designating a division.

Roger Bacon and the CGL Coed complained the rule would unfairly affect them because their students do not traditionally come from a single designated public school attendance zone. Judge Ruehlman found the association acted arbitrarily and capriciously by penalizing the high schools for enrolling students from Catholic feeder schools that historically have sent students to the eight high schools in the conference without “considering whether the school’s team was competitive in the first place.” He issued the TRO and set a hearing to consider a request by the schools to grant a preliminary injunction.

Association Asks Supreme Court to Halt Case
Within days of Judge Ruehlman’s decision, OHSAA sought a writ of prohibition from the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing that the common pleas court “patently and unambiguously lacks jurisdiction” to hear the case and that it should be dismissed. In addition, the association asked for and received an emergency stay of the TRO to prevent it from taking effect while the request for the writ was pending.

Justice DeWine wrote that a writ of prohibition is reserved for rare cases and granted in limited circumstances “with great caution and restraint.” Because OHSAA had an adequate remedy at law by way of appeal, a writ was appropriate only if the court of common pleas patently and unambiguously lacked jurisdiction over the matter. OHSAA argued that the court lacked jurisdiction because Ohio case law generally does not allow a court to interfere with the decisions of private, voluntary organizations.

The majority opinion held that the association confuses the right of a common pleas court to consider a case with the authority of the court to grant the requested relief once it hears the case. The opinion noted Ohio has “a substantive legal rule of noninterference with the decisions of voluntary organizations absent special circumstances or a permissive statute.”

But, the opinion stated, the Ohio Constitution grants common pleas courts the jurisdiction to hear all matters except those that are specifically denied to it. The Court majority noted that OHSAA did not point to any state law that denies the right of the common pleas court to consider the case, even if the court ultimately does not have the right to grant the schools’ request to block the rule.

“Indeed there are many cases in which a court lacks the legal authority to grant the relief sought but nevertheless has subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the case,” the opinion stated.

The Court majority also rejected the claims by the dissenting justices that the TRO would have a dramatic effect on the postseason playoff designations for the other 809 high schools. The opinion stated, that any effect of the TRO on post-season qualification was “speculative, at best” and that “[t]here is no reason to think the OHSAA could not make adjustments, consistent with the TRO, that would prevent any unfairness.”

Dissent Finds Decision Disruptive
Chief Justice O’Connor dissented, writing that a writ of prohibition against the trial court was proper because OHSAA lacked an adequate remedy at law and, separately, the trial court patently and unambiguously lacked jurisdiction. As to the former, she wrote that an “adequate remedy of law” must be adequate under the circumstances of the case, and requiring OHSAA to appeal an adverse decision by the trial court would not be an adequate remedy.

Chief Justice O’Connor first stated that “the TRO will throw many, if not all, of the 809 third-party member schools’ schedules and postseason tournament assignments into disarray.” High schools set their athletic schedules many months in advance of each season, based in part on their opponent’s division assignments.

If the TRO is permitted to take effect, it will eliminate the current post-season tournament assignments, forcing all fall sport post-season schedules to be re-worked “on the fly” and causing harm to all schools that set their schedules based in part on opponents’ expected division assignments, the dissenting opinion stated. For example, a school that scheduled a football game against Roger Bacon High believing it would count as a Division IV school for postseason purposes would find that Roger Bacon is a now a lower Division V school, a change that could cause the high school to miss the postseason tournament based on the strength of its schedule.

“The TRO is therefore an extremely disruptive act that, if permitted to take effect, will upend the status quo and immediately cause turmoil in high-school sports across the state,” the dissent stated.

Chief Justice O’Connor also wrote that the TRO was granted based on a clear misapplication of law. The Supreme Court has ruled that a “court will not interfere with the internal affairs of voluntary associations” like OHSAA except under certain circumstances that are not present in this case. Finally, an appeal from the trial court would not be an adequate remedy for the widespread harm to third parties caused by the TRO, given the short duration of high school sports seasons.

2018-1200. Ohio High School Athletic Association v. Ruehlman, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-2845.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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