State ex rel. W.Va. Secondary Sch. Activities Comm'n v. Sweeney, 22-0268

CourtSupreme Court of West Virginia
PartiesSTATE OF WEST VIRGINIA EX REL. WEST VIRGINIA SECONDARY SCHOOL ACTIVITIES COMMISSION, Petitioner, v. HONORABLE TIMOTHY L. SWEENEY, JUDGE OF THE CIRCUIT COURT OF RITCHIE COUNTY, AND L.M., BY AND THROUGH HIS PARENTS AND LEGAL GUARDIANS, HEATHER M. AND TODD M., Respondents.
Docket Number22-0268
Decision Date17 November 2022

STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA EX REL. WEST VIRGINIA SECONDARY SCHOOL ACTIVITIES COMMISSION, Petitioner,
v.

HONORABLE TIMOTHY L. SWEENEY, JUDGE OF THE CIRCUIT COURT OF RITCHIE COUNTY, AND L.M., BY AND THROUGH HIS PARENTS AND LEGAL GUARDIANS, HEATHER M. AND TODD M., Respondents.

No. 22-0268

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

November 17, 2022


MEMORANDUM DECISION

The petitioner, the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission ("WVSSAC"), seeks a writ of prohibition to prevent the enforcement of an order entered March 7, 2022, by the Circuit Court of Ritchie County granting the respondent, student L.M.,[1] a preliminary injunction to prevent the WVSSAC from enforcing its Semester and Season Rule and thereby allowing L.M. to play high school baseball during his fifth year of high school.[2]

As set forth below, upon consideration of the standard for the issuance of a writ of prohibition, the Court finds that the WVSSAC is entitled to the prohibitory relief it seeks, as moulded, and determines that a memorandum decision is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

1

This case began in March of 2020, when L.M. was a junior at Williamstown High School ("WHS"), in Wood County, West Virginia. L.M. was on the roster to play baseball for WHS during the 2019-2020 school year. On March 2, 2020, the high school baseball season began, but on March 13, 2020, Governor Jim Justice closed all West Virginia schools, and, by extension, cancelled all West Virginia spring school sports, because of the COVID-19 global pandemic. High school baseball games were scheduled to begin on or after March 18, 2020, but were cancelled due to the statewide school closure. Therefore, L.M. did not play any high school baseball games during the spring 2020 semester.

Shortly thereafter, L.M. requested to be academically reclassified so that he could repeat his junior year of high school,[3] and, ostensibly would have two more years to play high school baseball but for the WVSSAC's Semester and Season Rule. The Semester and Season Rule provides: "A student may have the privilege to participate in the interscholastic program for four consecutive years (eight consecutive semesters or equivalent) after entering the 9th grade." W.Va. C.S.R. § 127-2-5.1 (eff. 2020).[4] L.M.'s reclassification request was granted,[5] and, by being reclassified, L.M. attended high school for five years (ten consecutive semesters).

After his reclassification, L.M. requested a waiver of the WVSSAC's Semester and Season Rule to permit him to play high school baseball during his senior (fifth) year of high school. The WVSSAC provides the following guidance regarding Semester and Season Rule waiver requests:

The Board of Directors [of the WVSSAC] is authorized to grant a waiver to the Semester and Season Rule when it feels the rule fails to accomplish the purpose for which it is intended and when the rule causes
2
extreme and undue hardship upon the student. Waivers may be granted in the following circumstances
The Board of Directors is authorized to consider cases in which a student entering 9th grade did not stay in continuous enrollment because of personal illness, or no school was available, or because of other undue hardship reasons ascertained through investigation
The Board of Directors may provide release from the continuous enrollment restriction provided no participation has occurred during the semester(s) in question.
In no event may a student be allowed to participate for more than four seasons in any one sport in grades 9-12.

W.Va. C.S.R. §§ 127-2-5.7.a-c (eff. 2020).[6]

By letter dated August 27, 2021, the WVSSAC Board of Directors denied L.M.'s request for a waiver of the Semester and Season Rule. L.M. then appealed to the WVSSAC's Board of Review ("Board of Review"), which, by order entered December 8, 2021, also denied the requested waiver. In January 2022, L.M., by and through his parents, filed the underlying civil action seeking injunctive relief in the Circuit Court of Ritchie County.[7] By order entered March 7, 2022, the circuit court granted L.M. a preliminary injunction preventing the WVSSAC from enforcing the Semester and Season Rule against him, and permitting him to play high school baseball during the spring 2022 semester. The WVSSAC then filed this petition for a writ of prohibition to prevent the circuit court from enforcing its order allowing L.M. to play high school baseball during the spring 2022 semester.

Before reaching the merits of the errors asserted by the WVSSAC and the standard under which we consider whether prohibitory relief is warranted in this case, we must first consider whether this Court has jurisdiction to entertain this proceeding. See generally Syl. pt. 1, in part, James M.B. v. Carolyn M., 193 W.Va. 289, 456 S.E.2d 16 (1995) ("[T]his Court has a responsibility sua sponte to examine the basis of its own jurisdiction."). The

3

question of this Court's jurisdiction in this case concerns mootness, which is a jurisdictional consideration. See N. Carolina v. Rice, 404 U.S. 244, 246, 92 S.Ct. 402, 404, 30 L.Ed.2d 413 (1971) (per curiam) (observing that "[m]ootness is a jurisdictional question" (citations omitted)). The instant controversy regarding L.M.'s eligibility as a student athlete in the spring of 2022 is now technically moot since L.M. was permitted, by the circuit court's preliminary injunction, to play high school baseball during the spring 2022 semester, and now, at the time of deciding this matter, the 2022-2023 school year is well underway. See State ex rel. Bluestone Coal Corp. v. Mazzone, 226 W.Va. 148, 155, 697 S.E.2d 740, 747 (2010) ("Simply stated, a case is moot when the issues presented are no longer live or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome." (internal quotations and citations omitted)).

Nevertheless, this Court may consider technically moot issues under certain enumerated circumstances:

Three factors to be considered in deciding whether to address technically moot issues are as follows: first, the court will determine whether sufficient collateral consequences will result from determination of the questions presented so as to justify relief; second, while technically moot in the immediate context, questions of great public interest may nevertheless be addressed for the future guidance of the bar and of the public; and third, issues
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