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COA: findings don't support attorney fees

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The Indiana Court of Appeals remanded a case today involving attorney fees - the appellate court questioned whether the Indiana High School Athletic Association was trying to dissuade appeals by athletes - because the findings of the case currently don't support the judgment.

In Indiana High School Athletic Association Inc. v. Gregory S. Schafer and Shane Schafer, No. 37A03-0811-CV-560, the appellate court considered the award of attorney fees to the Schafers from a 1991 case in which Shane Schafer appealed the IHSAA's decision he was ineligible to play basketball during the 1991-1992 school year. Schafer became ill during his junior year in 1990 and withdrew from school shortly after the end of the regular basketball season in 1991. His high school allowed him to repeat his entire junior year in the fall 1991. He asked the IHSAA to not count the 1990-1991 school year against him, which the organization denied. The trial court eventually granted Schafer's motion for declaratory judgment on the constitutionality of the rules IHSAA applied to him and enjoined the IHSAA from ruling him ineligible or punishing his high school. The trial court concluded the IHSAA rules were overly broad, arbitrary, and capricious.

The trial court granted Shafer's request for attorney fees on the grounds that during the declaratory judgment period the IHSAA continued to litigate a defense that was frivolous, unreasonable, and capricious.

The appellate court determined that the record before it didn't allow it to uphold Shafer's award of attorney fees because the trial court's findings of fact don't support such a conclusion, wrote Judge Melissa May. The judges declined to hold the litigation as necessarily frivolous or unreasonable just because an administrative rule that is the subject of the litigation is eventually determined to be arbitrary, capricious, or unconstitutional, she wrote.

"We are unable to affirm the award of attorney fees because the trial court's findings do not support its judgment. But our result on that narrow ground must not be interpreted to condone IHSAA's actions ..." the judge continued.

The appellate court has disapproved of similar litigation tactics employed in the past by the IHSAA, with the judge citing Indiana High School Athletic Association v. Vasario, 726 N.E.2d 325, 335 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000), and now-Chief Judge John Baker's dissent from that case.

"The case before us raises the same concerns that the IHSAA is trying 'to send a message to parents and student athletes in Indiana about the great risk and expense involved in challenging a ruling, and thus discourage them from appealing a denial of eligibility,'" Judge May wrote regarding the instant case.

The Court of Appeals remanded so the trial court could further consider and explain its judgment with regard to its conclusion on the attorney fee issue.

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