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Mississippi High School Activities Association, Inc. v. R.T.

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

May 8, 2015

MISSISSIPPI HIGH SCHOOL ACTIVITIES ASSOCIATION, INC.
v.
R.T. A MINOR, BY AND THROUGH HIS NATURAL FATHER AND NEXT FRIEND, RICHARD R. TRAIL

As Corrected June 4, 2015.

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: DESOTO COUNTY CHANCERY COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 10/09/2013. TRIAL JUDGE: HON. VICKI B. COBB. TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: STEVEN E. FARESE, SR., JOHN JEFFREY TROTTER.

FOR APPELLANT: BENJAMIN BLUE MORGAN, JAMES A. KEITH, JOHN JEFFREY TROTTER, J. KEITH TREADWAY.

FOR APPELLEE: STEVEN E. FARESE, SR., JOSEPH WHITTEN COOPER, NORMAN WILLIAM PAULI, JR.

OPINION

Page 275

DICKINSON, PRESIDING JUSTICE

¶1. The only issue before us is whether a high school athlete has standing to challenge adverse decisions concerning the student's eligibility to participate in high school athletics. We hold that he does.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶2. The DeSoto County School District (" School District" )--a public, taxpayer-funded entity--entered into a contract with a private entity called the Mississippi High School Activities Association (" MHSAA" ). [1] The terms of the contract allow MHSAA to decide whether School District students are eligible to play high school sports. In making its decisions, MHSAA applies its own rules and regulations, and neither the School District nor

Page 276

its school board have input into the process.

¶3. In 2012, R.T. was a star quarterback for Wynne Public School in Wynne, Arkansas. His parents--the Trails--decided that a change of school districts would be in R.T.'s best interests, so in January 2013 they bought a house in Olive Branch and enrolled R.T. in Olive Branch High School. Their daughter was to remain in Wynne until the school year ended. MHSAA determined that R.T. was eligible to compete in spring sports and allowed R.T. to play baseball. MHSAA conditioned R.T.'s continuing eligibility on the Trails' daughter also enrolling in the School District at the start of the 2013-2014 school year. But, because the Trails' daughter did not want to leave her friends behind in Arkansas, the family decided that one parent would stay in Arkansas with their daughter, as they had done during the spring semester, and the other parent would move to Mississippi and remain with R.T.

¶4. On the eve of the 2013 football season, MHSAA notified the school and R.T. that, under its interpretation of its rules and regulations, R.T. was ineligible to play because it had determined that his family had not made a bona fide move to the School District.[2] Neither the School District nor Olive Branch High School appealed through MHSAA's internal procedure, so the Trails immediately filed a petition for a temporary restraining order (TRO) and preliminary injunction in the DeSoto County Chancery Court. The chancellor signed an ex-parte order granting the TRO and revoking MHSAA's adverse eligibility determination.

¶5. MHSAA then filed a motion to dismiss under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) arguing that the Trails lacked standing to challenge MHSAA's eligibility determinations and that the Trails' action was premature. The Trails argued that R.T. had standing as a third-party beneficiary to the contract between MHSAA and the School District. The chancellor granted MHSAA's motion to dismiss all claims against the MHSAA and the DeSoto County School District and dissolved the original injunction, finding that the Trails lacked standing because " [t]he Mississippi Supreme Court has held that participation in high school athletics is not a legally enforceable right." However, the chancellor granted the Trails' motion for a stay while the Trails appealed the chancery court's order dissolving their injunction and dismissing their case.

¶6. The Trails then filed a motion under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) to amend the chancellor's order, arguing that the chancery court was the " only bastion [of] relief for the kids" who had been affected by adverse eligibility determinations, and that R.T. had standing as a third-party beneficiary to the contract between the School District and MHSAA. In the interim, MHSAA twice petitioned this Court for writs of prohibition and mandamus and a petition for permission to file an interlocutory appeal.

¶7. After we directed the chancellor to rule on the Trails' still-pending Rule 59(e) motion, the chancellor granted the motion finding that the Trails had standing, because R.T. was a direct beneficiary of the hardship provisions of the contract between MHSAA and the School District. The chancellor converted the TRO into a preliminary injunction. MHSAA yet again filed a petition for permission to file an

Page 277

interlocutory appeal in this Court, which we granted in order to finally settle the issue.

ANALYSIS

¶8. This Court reviews questions of law, including questions of standing and the existence of legally cognizable claims, de novo.[3] Mississippi's standing requirements--unlike the standing requirements in federal court--are quite liberal.[4] " Parties have standing to 'sue or intervene when they assert a colorable interest in the subject matter of the litigation or experience an adverse effect from the conduct of the defendant, ...


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