Swimming Against The Current – Student Has No Constitutionally Protected Property Interest In Extracurricular Activities

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Swimming Against The Current – Student Has No Constitutionally Protected Property Interest In Extracurricular Activities: Mancuso v. Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, 453 Mass. 116 (2009)

In a case of first impression, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently rejected a high school student-athlete’s claim that she held a constitutionally protected property interest to participate on her high school swim team.

Regarded as one of the fastest swimmers in the Commonwealth, Elizabeth Mancuso completed the ninth grade at Austin Preparatory School during the 1999-2000 academic school year. Plaintiff chose not to swim for Austin Prep. that year despite her eligibility to do so under the rules of the governing body for high school athletics, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (“MIAA”). In 2000, plaintiff transferred to Andover High School and repeated her freshman year. She swam competitively for Andover throughout her freshman, sophomore, and junior years.

Towards the end of her junior year, MIAA officials notified plaintiff that she was ineligible to compete during her senior year pursuant to MIAA’s “fifth year student rule,” which limited high school student-athletes to four consecutive years of eligibility. Because plaintiff was eligible to swim while at Austin Prep., the plaintiff’s fourth year of eligibility expired after her junior year at Andover. The plaintiff’s request for a waiver of the eligibility rule was denied, as were her administrative appeals with MIAA.

Plaintiff filed suit against MIAA, in part claiming that MIAA infringed upon her constitutionally protected property interest to participate in interscholastic athletics without due process of law. Such a right, plaintiff theorized, was encompassed within her constitutionally protected property interest in a public education. Plaintiff also argued that a property right was implied from MIAA’s eligibility rules because she reasonably expected to receive benefits,  i.e., continued eligibility, under the rules. After a plaintiff’s verdict on the due process portion of her claim, the trial court granted MIAA’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, on the grounds that no constitutionally protected property interest was at stake. Plaintiff appealed and the SJC granted direct appellate review on its own initiative.

In its opinion, written by Justice Cowin, the SJC focused upon the threshold due process question of whether a constitutionally protected property right was at stake. The SJC first observed that while students have a constitutionally protected right to a public education, that right had always been defined in terms of a “total exclusion” of a student from the educational process.  Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565, 573-574 (1975). The SJC rejected plaintiff’s claim that a property right to participate in extracurricular activities is implied from the broader right to an education, declining to dissect the “myriad [of] activities which combine to form the educational process” into hundreds of actionable property rights, “each cognizable under the Constitution.” The SJC concluded that the Fourteenth Amendment does not require extending due process rights to every student denied access to a particular class, sports team, club or extracurricular activity.

Plaintiff fared no better under her secondary argument that MIAA’s eligibility rules and her longstanding enjoyment of eligibility under those rules gave rise to a property right. The SJC held that even assuming,  arguendo, that MIAA’s rules could ever give rise to a property right, the parameters of such a right would be defined by MIAA’s rules. Because those rules clearly provided for only four years of eligibility, which plaintiff did not dispute she had received, the SJC reasoned that plaintiff had no “legitimate claim of entitlement to further participation.”

The reach of the  Mancuso v. MIAA decision is broader than extracurricular sports. The SJC specifically rejected the notion that participation in clubs or a “particular class” triggers due process rights. It would seem that nothing short of a total exclusion from the educational process will offend the Constitution. On the other hand, the SJC passed on the specific question of whether MIAA’s eligibility rules can ever give rise to a property interest, assuming as much for the sake of analysis. It remains to be seen whether due process rights will be required where the applicable eligibility rules provide better support for a claim of reasonable entitlement.