Duffley v. New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Ass'n, Inc.

Decision Date26 May 1982
Docket NumberNo. 82-111,82-111
Citation122 N.H. 484,446 A.2d 462
CourtNew Hampshire Supreme Court

Alexander J. Kalinski and Martin K. Glennon, Manchester, for plaintiff.

Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell P. A., Concord (Steven J. McAuliffe, Concord), for defendant.

BROCK, Justice.

The issue in this case is whether the trial court properly dismissed the plaintiff's petition alleging that the defendant New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, Inc. improperly denied him eligibility to participate in interscholastic athletics during the second semester of the 1981-1982 school year.

The plaintiff filed a petition for writ of supersedeas in this court on March 15, 1982, requesting that the order of the Superior Court (Goode, J.) be stayed pending appeal. By order dated March 17, 1982, we vacated the trial court's order dismissing the plaintiff's petition and reinstated prior orders of that court granting the plaintiff temporary injunctive relief. Because we conclude that fundamental requisites of due process were not observed in proceedings conducted before the NHIAA in this matter, we hold that its decision denying the plaintiff eligibility was unlawful and is therefore invalid.

Paraphrasing words used by the United States Supreme Court, it can hardly be argued that high school students wishing to participate in interscholastic athletics shed all of their constitutional rights at the entranceway to the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association. See Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506, 89 S.Ct. 733, 736, 21 L.Ed.2d 731 (1969); see also Rivas Tenorio v. Liga Atletica Interuniversitaria, 554 F.2d 492, 494 (1st Cir. 1977) (holding that intercollegiate athletic association's actions constitute governmental action for purposes of the Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983). We have only recently stated that a "fundamental requisite of due process is the right to be heard at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner. ... The right to be heard is grounded in the need for confrontation when adjudicative rights [or facts] are in dispute." Appeal of Portsmouth Trust Co., 120 N.H. 753, 758, 423 A.2d 603, 606 (1980) (citations omitted).

Having these general principles in mind, we proceed to a summary of the facts involved in the present dispute and a history of proceedings held before the NHIAA and the superior court, in order that their application to this case may be better understood.

The plaintiff, Robert Duffley, a nineteen-year-old senior, has been an honor student and is a member of the basketball team at Trinity High School in Manchester. After attending a portion of the first semester of the 1978-1979 academic year as a sophomore, he became ill and, upon orders of his doctor, withdrew from school for the remainder of the school year. The plaintiff did not participate in athletics and received no academic credit for the time he was in attendance that year. He began his sophomore year anew in the fall of 1979, and thereafter participated in school athletics.

Because Trinity High School is a member of the NHIAA, a corporation that sponsors, administers, and supervises the conduct of interscholastic athletic competition for most public and private schools in New Hampshire, its principal Donald Desmarais anticipated, and correctly so, that a question concerning the plaintiff's eligibility to participate in interscholastic athletics during his senior year, 1981-1982, would arise.

The defendant's by-laws, to the extent that they are pertinent to the case before us, provide "Article II, Section 12.

On any question of eligibility a Principal shall have the right to ask the Executive Secretary for a ruling. All such requests must come from the Principal of the school.


Article II, Section 4: Semester Rule

(a) No pupil is eligible for competition (whether the student competes or not) in interscholastic athletics more than eight (8) consecutive semesters (1461 days or 365 X 4 plus 1) beyond the eighth grade.

(b) A semester shall be considered to open with the regular hour for the opening classes on the opening day of the semester and any pupil who has twenty (20) days of membership shall be considered as having been in attendance that semester.


Article II, Section 6: Deviations from Eligibility Rules.

Any deviation from the NHIAA Eligibility Rules shall be made only with the consent of the Eligibility Committee of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association. The Eligibility Committee, in considering deviations from present rules, shall consider the following criteria in determining whether or not to allow the same:

1. The merits of the individual case.

2. Whether or not the granting of the deviation from the rule would be inconsistent with the purposes of the rule.

3. Whether or not the individual concerned caused or contributed to cause the existence of the factors which result in ineligibility."

(Emphasis added.)

By letter dated May 13, 1981, the principal, relying upon the provisions of Article II, Section 12, requested a ruling from the executive secretary of the NHIAA that the plaintiff be granted athletic eligibility for his senior year. In his request, the principal referred to Article II, Section 4: semester rule. In response, the executive secretary indicated that additional information was needed before any decision could be rendered in the case. Specifically, he requested the plaintiff's grades while attending Trinity High School, that a form be filled out, and "the exact termination date from Trinity during the 1978-1979 school year." (Emphasis added.) These requests were complied with in June, and on July 9, 1981, the executive secretary notified the principal that "[he] would respectfully request that the student be given one additional semester of athletic eligibility. This opinion is supported by both the school and medical evidence you have forwarded to us." (Emphasis added.) No reason was given for denial of eligibility for the second requested semester.

The principal appealed the executive secretary's decision to the Eligibility Committee, as provided by the defendant's rules. Without a hearing, the committee denied the appeal on August 18, 1981, stating in its minutes:

"This student was in attendance at school September-November 30 at which time he withdrew. ... After review of facts submitted which indicated correspondence from father, medical doctor and principle [sic] it was Voted to deny appeal on basis of fact student was granted additional semester based upon illness during 1978-1979 school year."

(Emphasis added.)

Next, the principal appealed to the NHIAA executive council, which considered the matter at its meeting on August 10, 1981, with the principal alone being present to represent the plaintiff's position. The minutes of this meeting state:

"ELIGIBILITY CASE of Robert Duffley of Trinity High School

Don Desmarais Principal of Trinity High School appealed decisions of the Executive Director and the NHIAA eligibility committee that Robert Duffley a student who lost a semester of school due to illness, be granted a full year of athletic eligibility and not just one additional semester. Mr. Desmarais made available to the Council all the records of the case and requested a support of his appeal. A motion was made to accept the appeal and that the student in question be given a full year of eligibility. The motion failed to pass by a 4-6 vote."

(Emphasis added.) By letter dated August 21, 1981, the principal was advised, without explanation, that the appeal was denied.

Because the Trinity High School principal had all along been requesting two additional semesters of athletic eligibility for the plaintiff because he had not received academic credit for, and had lost two semesters of school, not one as stated in the minutes of the executive council's meeting, due to illness, the plaintiff understandably sought legal advice concerning the effect that the defendant's apparent misunderstanding of the facts might have on his legal rights. In September, counsel for the plaintiff requested that a further hearing be granted to his client and that the council reconsider its August 10, 1981 decision. Because its rules require that only principals of member schools--not the student himself--may pursue eligibility questions before the NHIAA, it was not until the principal personally requested a rehearing that the matter was put on the council's agenda for consideration on December 17, 1981.

On that date, the plaintiff's father, his attorneys, and the principal were present. The latter was allowed to present some "additional information," and Attorney Kalinski addressed the council concerning the plaintiff's rights, at which point the council went into executive session for twenty-five minutes, reappeared, and unanimously voted to grant a rehearing. The council, however, immediately denied the appeal, by a vote of 12 to 1. No reasons were given.

On December 29, 1981, the plaintiff filed a petition in the superior court, seeking equitable and injunctive relief. The plaintiff alleged, inter alia, violation of his due process rights under the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution, and that the defendant had acted arbitrarily and capriciously in arriving at its decision, which was unreasonable and unlawful.

After an evidentiary hearing held on January 25, 1982, the Superior Court (Wyman, J.) temporarily enjoined the NHIAA from enforcing its decision denying the plaintiff the right to participate in interscholastic athletics during the second semester of the 1981-1982 school year, pending a hearing on the merits. On February 11, 1982, the defendant filed a motion for an early hearing on the merits, to which the plaintiff objected. A hearing on the motion was held on Monday, March 8, 1982, and in spite of the plaintiff's counse...

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