Law360 (October 2, 2020, 3:16 PM EDT) -- A Pennsylvania federal judge rejected four student athletes' claims that the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association violated their rights when it reduced the number of participants in a golf tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter ruled late Thursday night that the PIAA and its local district were neither arbitrary nor capricious when they reduced the number of male golfers who could qualify for the District 10 championship tournament by about half as part of their pandemic precautions. The four plaintiffs were three seniors and a junior at Conneaut Area Senior High School and Slippery Rock Area High School who would have otherwise qualified for the tournament if the field had not been suddenly narrowed just over a week beforehand.
"Although the court is grieved for the students and all they have lost this year, especially the four fine golfers who were dealt this blow just a week ago, we all have to deal with the reality that nothing is the same as it was prior to this pandemic," Judge Baxter wrote in her opinion. "It is not the court's job to decide the better course, but to ensure the one taken was not arbitrary and capricious, or for a wrongful purpose. Although the decision was a painful one for the plaintiffs, it was done with a rational basis and passes muster under the law."
Finding the athletes were unable to show the league's decision was arbitrary or that they'd suffered irreparable harm, the court denied the students' motion for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed them to compete in the tournament.
The students' lawsuit, which was filed Sept. 30 in the Court of Common Pleas for Crawford County, Pennsylvania, claimed the PIAA had violated their constitutional rights to equal protection with the sudden change.
The PIAA removed the case to federal court, filed briefs and participated in a hearing on the preliminary injunction all on Oct. 1, given that the tournament was scheduled for Oct. 2. Judge Baxter heard testimony from the students' parents and league officials, then issued her ruling shortly after 11 p.m. Thursday.
Judge Baxter said that since the students were making an equal-rights claim, she had to weigh whether the PIAA had a rational basis for its decision.
Some of the league's testimony had focused on other changes made due to the pandemic, including the cancellation of spring sports and other championship tournaments altogether, the opinion noted.
Peter P. Iacino, chair of the PIAA District 10 Committee, had told the court how, in order to maintain social distancing on the golf course and reduce the risk of spreading the pandemic, the field of participants was narrowed and their start times were spaced further apart, so that it would take between six and a half to seven and a half hours to complete a single round of the tournament, the order said.
"The court can only conclude that the PIAA's actions, while no doubt disappointing and disheartening to the promising young linksmen of District 10, were deliberate, careful, and considered," Judge Baxter wrote. "The PIAA has a reasonable justification for its decision, to avoid the spread of Covid. And its actions in curtailing the number of students invited to the championship tournament is reasonably related to that goal. Thus, the plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claim."
Like the PIAA had in its briefs, the court pointed to other courts in Pennsylvania that had found the inability to participate in school athletic events — even for an entire season, let alone a championship tournament — was not considered an "irreparable harm" necessary for granting an injunction. The students had been able to compete in previous events; it was the opportunity to advance to the district championships and perhaps state-level competitions that they had been denied.
"The loss of these opportunities, while no doubt immensely disappointing to the plaintiffs, does not constitute the type of harm that is deemed 'irreparable' for purposes of obtaining the extraordinary remedy of injunctive relief," Judge Baxter said. "For this reason as well, plaintiffs' request for injunctive relief cannot be granted."
An attorney for the league expressed gratitude that the court was able to hear the case and decide it on such short notice.
"PIAA also understands the desire of students to participate wherever possible but adjustments to the standard postseason tournaments are a necessity in the COVID environment," said Alan R. Boynton Jr. of McNees Wallace & Nurick. "PIAA is closely watching competition across the state and evaluating, on a day-to-day basis, whether and how postseason competition can occur. The judge's opinion makes clear that she understands the challenges being faced by PIAA."
Counsel for the students did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.
The students are represented by George Joseph and Andrew M. Schmidt of Quinn Buseck Leemhuis Toohey & Kroto Inc.
The PIAA, District 10 and golf tournament director Michael Ferry are represented by Brian H. Simmons of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC and Alan R. Boynton Jr. of McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC.
The case is A.M. et al. v. Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Inc. et al., case number 1:20-cv-00290, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
--Editing by Marygrace Murphy.
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