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Georgia High School Association v. Charlton County School District

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

March 8, 2019

GEORGIA HIGH SCHOOL ASSOCIATION
v.
CHARLTON COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT.

          BARNES, P. J., MCMILLIAN and REESE, JJ.

          MCMILLIAN, JUDGE.

         The Georgia High School Association ("GHSA") appeals the trial court's order enjoining GHSA's imposition of penalties on Charlton County School District, d/b/a Charlton County High School ("Charlton County") after the school self-reported that it had violated GHSA's 110-pitch rule in two baseball games. GHSA argues that any decision that it makes regarding high school athletic contests in Georgia are non-justiciable, that is, not reviewable by any court. Although GHSA possesses wide discretion in its treatment of member schools, GHSA is required to abide by its own Constitution and Bylaws, and that issue is reviewable, so we affirm and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         GHSA is an unincorporated association of public and private high schools, which serves as the governing body for high school athletic, music, speech, and other fine arts competitions among high schools in the State of Georgia.[1] See Parents Against Realignment v. Georgia High School Assn., 271 Ga. 114, 114 (516 S.E.2d 528) (1999). GHSA divides its member high schools into classifications based on student enrollment and then groups the schools in each classification into geographically-based regions. At the pertinent time, Charlton County was a GHSA member and paid dues to GHSA to maintain its membership in the association. GHSA assigned Charlton County to Region 2 of its "A" classification, known as "Region 2A," and member high schools in Lanier and Irwin Counties were also classified as Region 2A schools.

         GHSA promulgates rules for each sport it governs, and its Constitution and ByLaws (often called, and referred to herein as, the "White Book") set out the method for addressing any violation of such rules. Charlton County competes in high school baseball, among other activities, under the auspices of GHSA. One of GHSA's rules applicable to baseball prohibits a player from throwing more than 110 pitches in a two-day period, with certain exceptions not applicable here.[2] A violation of the pitch-count rule potentially subjects the offending school to a $250 fine, a two-game suspension for its head coach, and the forfeit of the game in which the violation occurred.

         During two baseball games played consecutively on March 9 and 10, 2018, the official GHSA pitch count showed that one Charlton County player threw 115 pitches, violating the GHSA pitch-count restriction. At GHSA-sanctioned games, the pitch count is conducted by a GHSA-registered umpire, and although not required by GHSA rules, it is routine practice for the pitch count monitor ("PCM") to give a courtesy warning to teams and the home-plate umpire when a player is approaching the pitch-count limit, and, in fact, GHSA trains PCMs to give such warnings. However, no such warnings were given at Charlton County's March 10 game against Lanier County High School ("Lanier County"), during which the rule violation occurred. The White Book authorizes the State Executive Director to interpret GHSA rules and impose the proper penalty for any rule violation, and on March 15, 2018, Charlton County self-reported the pitch count violation to Dr. Robin Hines, GHSA Executive Director. That same day, GHSA officials, including Hines and Ernie Yarbrough, GHSA Assistant Executive Director, participated in a conference call with representatives from Charlton County to discuss the matter. Following the conference call, Yarborough and Hines conferred and decided the appropriate punishment for the violation was to issue Charlton County a warning. Yarborough sent an e-mail that day to Charlton County and Lanier County announcing that a violation had occurred, "[b]ut upon further review of all the circumstances [GHSA ruled that there would] be no penalty due to the PCM not informing the Charlton Co. coach, nor the home plate umpire, that pitching to the final batter would exceed the two-day pitch count restriction" (the "March 15 decision").[3]

         The White Book provides that any member that is unsatisfied with a penalty decision has seven calendar days after the decision in which to file an appeal to GHSA's State Appeal Board (the "Appeal Board"), or if the only issue under appeal is a request to modify the penalty imposed, the member school may appeal directly to the Executive Committee of GHSA. On appeal, the State Appeal Board or the Executive Committee then considers the evidence submitted by the party or parties in rendering its decision. No appeal of the March 15 decision was filed within the seven-day period, and Charlton County went on to finish its regular season with a 14-2 record against its Region 2A opponents. Irwin County High School ("Irwin County") also finished with a 14-2 record for the season, but because both of its losses had been against Charlton County, the latter was named the 2018 Region 2A Champion.

         Subsequently, on April 18, 2018, the head coach of Irwin County sent an email to a number of Irwin County school officials and GHSA employees, including Yarbrough, complaining of GHSA's March 15 decision to issue Charlton County a warning instead of a penalty and asking GHSA to award the win in the March 10 game to Lanier County. The Irwin County coach also asked GHSA to "[p]lease don't throw us under the bus with the team in question by allowing them to know that we sent this e-mail." GHSA and Irwin County continued to exchange emails about the matter over the period April 18-19, 2018, and in one of those messages, Irwin County acknowledged that the matter had been "ruled on more than a month go" and that the Irwin County coach, "as well as the other coaches in our region, knew about it before y'all did. We all just held on to it in case we needed it in a situation like we do now." Consistent with Irwin County's request, GHSA did not inform Charlton County of Irwin County's challenge to the March 15 decision before it decided the appeal.

         A few days later, on April 23, 2018 at 9:01 a.m., Irwin County faxed a written appeal letter contesting the March 15 decision to Hines and the "Baseball Appeals Committee."[4] On the same day, at approximately 11:20 a.m., Hines called the Charlton County principal to inform him that an appeal had been filed, and that he, acting alone, had decided to sustain the appeal. Hines repeated this decision in a follow-up e-mail sent at 11:28 a.m., explaining that he had reviewed the appeal and decided to sustain it. As a result, he ruled that Charlton County would forfeit the March 10 game to Lanier County. In that e-mail, Hines stated that he was "disappointed that there was no appeal to the original ruling in a timely fashion since the game in question was played well over a month ago." As a result of Hines' decision, Charlton County was stripped of the Region 2A championship, which was awarded instead to Irwin County, and Charlton County dropped below Irwin County in the rankings for the upcoming state baseball championship playoffs, affecting its seeding position for the playoffs. GHSA posted the playoff rankings on its website later that day and announced that no further appeals would be heard. The time for appealing the rankings had, in fact, expired at 12:00 noon on April 23, 2018, approximately 32 minutes after Hines provided Charlton County with his written ruling.

         On April 25, 2018, Charlton County filed a "Petition for Declaratory Judgment and Injunctive Relief," asking the trial court to declare that Irwin County's appeal of the March 15 decision was void because it was decided in violation of the White Book, that Charlton County's record for the season remained 14-2, and that it was the 2018 Region 2A baseball champion. The petition also sought to enjoin GHSA from conducting the Class A public school state playoffs until the matter could be heard. Following an evidentiary hearing into the matter, the trial court issued an order on May 2, 2018, finding that GHSA had violated the White Book in considering and ruling on Irwin County's appeal and that GHSA's decision on the matter was void. As a result, the trial court:

- enjoined GHSA from granting Lanier County a forfeit victory in the March 10 game against Charlton Couinty;
- required GHSA to recognize the original outcome of the March 10 game;
- required GHSA to recognize that Charlton County finished with a 14-2 record against Region 2A opponents;
- required GHSA, after Charlton County's record had been changed to reflect a victory in the March 10 game, to determine the Region ...

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