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Immaculate Heart Central School; Jeffrey Marra v. the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Section Iii

June 23, 2011

IMMACULATE HEART CENTRAL SCHOOL; JEFFREY MARRA; CHRISTOPHER INGERSON; AND RONALD SEXTON, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE NEW YORK STATE PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION AND SECTION III DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David N. Hurd United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM--DECISION and ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs Immaculate Heart Central School ("IHC"), Jeffrey Marra, Christopher Ingerson, and Ronald Sexton (collectively "plaintiffs") bring this declaratory action against defendants New York State Public High School Athletic Association (the "Athletic Association") and Section III (collectively "defendants") to enjoin them from classifying private (non-public) schools differently than public schools. Specifically, plaintiffs assert four causes of action: (1) violation of the Equal Protection Clause pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment; (2) violation of the Due Process Clause pursuant to the Fourteenth Amendment; (3) violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, Title 42, United States Code, section 2000bb-1, and the First Amendment; and (4) violation of Title 42, United States Code, section 1983.

Both defendants move to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Plaintiffs oppose. Oral argument was heard on April 29, 2011, in Utica, New York. Decision was reserved.

II. BACKGROUND

The following facts, taken from the complaint and incorporated documents, are accepted as true for purposes of the motions to dismiss.

PlaintiffIHC is a private Catholic high school located in Watertown, New York. It is operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg, New York and incorporated by the University of the State of New York as an academic institution. Plaintiffs Marra, Ingerson, and Sexton are the parents of sons who attend IHC and compete in IHC's interscholastic football program. Defendant Athletic Association is a non-profit organization responsible for governing interscholastic athletics for secondary schools in New York.

Under the Athletic Association's constitution, New York is divided into eleven geographic areas called "Sections." Defendant Section III is one of the eleven sections and maintains its office in Onondaga County, New York. Any secondary school within the geographic boundaries of Section III is eligible for membership upon acceptance by a majority vote of the Athletic Council*fn1 and upon approval of the Athletic Association. Member schools must agree to abide by all Section III, Athletic Association, and New York State Commissioner of Education rules, regulations, and procedures.

The Athletic Association provides administrative oversight of the eleven Sections. One of its functions is to classify member school districts into "Classes" to ensure fair and equitable interscholastic athletic competition. According to its constitution, schools are classified annually using the preceding school year Basic Education Data ("BEDS") enrollment figures published by the New York State Department of Education. The BEDS figures are roughly synonymous with a school's enrollment.

In November 1997 the Athletic Association amended its constitution to provide that each Section "may determine the appropriate classification for their non-public school members." Compl. ¶ 11. Following this, in 1998, Section III passed a resolution "to place non-public school members in the appropriate class to ensure equitable competition regardless of enrollment." Id. ¶ 12. Then, in 2003, to accomplish this objective, Section III enacted the classification policy at issue here for non-public schools. A classification committee also exists to place non-public school sport teams in the appropriate class. The classification placement, as determined by the classification committee, is sport specific and reviewable on a biennial basis. The sport specific classification is for post-season sectional competition.*fn2

According to the Section III handbook, public schools are classified using only BEDS numbers. A non-public school is initially classified based upon its enrollment where there is no significant difference in strength of programs offered by like classified public schools. Based on its BEDS numbers, IHC was classified and "has played primarily in Class D since Section III enacted a classification system for high school football." Compl. ¶ 10.

The Section III classification policy for non-public schools, adopted in 2003, provides that a school will be moved up in class if it meets one of the following four criteria within a two-year cycle: (1) a winning percentage of .750 in their overall record, league record, or record in class; (2) a league and/or playoff championship; (3) a Sectional final appearance; or (4) a State championship. Id. ¶ 14.

The classification committee met on December 15, 2009, to classify schools for the upcoming fall sports season. Representatives from IHC attended. At the meeting, Mike Stevens, Athletic Director and football coach for Sandy Creek Central School District, proposed IHC be moved from Class D competition up to Class C based on its previous winning record.*fn3 The classification committee, by vote, approved IHC's move from Class D to Class C.

On December 23, 2009, IHC appealed its reclassification to the Section III Appeal Panel. On January 14, 2010, the Appeal Panel upheld the classification committee's decision to move IHC to Class C. On February 2, 2010, IHC appealed to the Athletic Association. The Athletic Association denied the appeal on February 17, 2010, and notified IHC of its denial by letter on February 22, 2010. Plaintiffs subsequently filed this action on December 7, 2010.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Legal Standard

When deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a plaintiff's factual allegations must be accepted as true and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in favor of the plaintiff to assess whether a plausible claim for relief has been stated. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555--61, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1964--67 (2007); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, __ U.S. __, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1953 (2008) (holding that the pleading rule set forth in Twombly applies in all civil actions). The factual allegations must be sufficient "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level," crossing the line from conceivable to plausible. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S. Ct. at 1965. Additionally, "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. at 555, 127 S. Ct. at 1965. "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S. Ct. at 1965).

Thus, in reviewing the sufficiency of the pleading, a court first may identify legal conclusions that "are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Id. at 1950. The court should then "assume [the] veracity" of "well-pleaded factual allegations . . . and determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id.

Generally when considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a district court is constrained by the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached to the complaint as exhibits, and documents incorporated by reference in the complaint. DiFolco v. MSNBC Cable L.L.C., 622 F.3d 104, 111 (2d Cir. 2010). A court may nevertheless consider a document not in the above categories "where the complaint 'relies heavily upon its terms and effect,' thereby rendering the document 'integral' to the complaint." Id. (quoting Mangiafico v. Blumenthal, 471 F.3d 391, 398 (2d Cir. 2006)). "[E]ven if a document is integral to the complaint, it must be clear on the record that no dispute exists regarding the authenticity or accuracy of the document." Faulkner v. Beer, 463 F.3d 130, 134 (2d Cir. 2006) (internal quotation omitted). Further, there must not be any material disputed issues of fact regarding the document's relevance. Id.

Here, the complaint does not include any attached exhibits. However, it relies on the Athletic Association constitution and the 2010 Section III handbook. See D'Imperio Decl., Ex. 1 ("Athletic Association constitution"), Dkt. No 15-1; Rathbun Aff., Ex. C ("handbook"),*fn4 Dkt. No. 10-1. The complaint makes reference to, among other things, the classification committee, classification policy, enrollment numbers, and appeals process. See Compl., Dkt. No. 1, ¶¶ 4, 9, 11, 34 (Athletic Association constitution); ¶¶ 14, 19, 17, 21, 27, 35 (handbook). Because the complaint relies heavily on these documents, they are integral to it. Further, based on the references in the complaint and IHC's membership in the Athletic Association and Section III,*fn5 plaintiffs had knowledge of these documents and relied on them in bringing suit. There is no dispute as to the authenticity or accuracy of these documents, and both parties clearly considered them relevant as they are referenced by plaintiffs and defendants in their arguments. Therefore the Athletic Association constitution and Section III handbook will be considered in deciding the motions to dismiss.

B. Equal Protection Claim

1. Arguments--Equal Protection

Defendants move to dismissthe First cause of action alleging an equal protection violation. They argue the claim must be dismissed because plaintiffs cannot prove the classification policy violates the Equal Protection Clause since it survives rational basis review. They contend the classification is based on the legitimate goal of maintaining equitable competition among member schools and the classification policy is rationally related to achieving that goal. The complaint acknowledges, and defendants assert, that the classification policy attempts to remedy the competitive advantage that non-public schools have because they are not constrained by geographic boundaries in recruiting, as are public schools.

Plaintiffs argue that defendants' perceived differences in recruiting capabilities between public and non-public schools as a justification for the unequal treatment are wholly illusory and the classification policy cannot survive rational basis review. They fault defendants for failing to "show with at least the slightest shred of evidence that there is some factual basis for [their] unsupported assumptions of 'inequitable competition' between private and public schools." Pls.' Mem. of Law, Dkt. No. 15, 6. Plaintiffs contend that in reality, non-public schools do not have a competitive advantage and in fact, public schools may also recruit outside their geographic boundaries.*fn6 In essence, they argue the alleged justification for the policy is nothing more than an excuse to treat non-public schools differently.

2. Legal Standard--Equal Protection

"The Equal Protection Clause requires that the government treat all similarly situated people alike." Harlen Assocs. v. Inc. Vill. of Mineola, 273 F.3d 494, 499 (2d Cir. 2001). To prove a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, a plaintiff must first demonstrate that the two classes at issue are similarly situated. See, e.g., Yuen Jin v. Mukasey, 538 F.3d 143, 158 (2d Cir. 2008). Here, both public schools and non-public schools belong to Section III and the parties agree the classification policy treats non-public schools differently than public schools. They also do not dispute that rational basis review is appropriate because no suspect class nor fundamental right is involved.

Plaintiffs carry a heavy burden in proving an equal protection violation under rational basis review:

[T]he Equal Protection Clause is satisfied so long as there is a plausible policy reason for the classification, the legislative facts on which the classification is apparently based rationally may have been considered to be true by the governmental decisionmaker, and the relationship of the classification to its ...


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