By Michael Dayton
As a former defensive end at the University of South Carolina, Anderson lawyer Chuck Allen can talk football.
But these days, he’s talking about the legal victory he scored for two high school athletes: Cameron Ford of T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson County; and Nick Melton, who attends Dorman High School in Spartanburg.
Ford and Melton have the potential to play sports at the college level — but both nearly lost a shot at making their high school teams.
The reason: their families transferred to different school districts before the start of the 2005-2006 football season. The South Carolina High School League, which governs athletic events at 200 high schools, concluded the transfers were motivated by an athletic purpose.
The league stripped both athletes of their eligibility. Allen, who represented both families, went to court and argued the league’s transfer provisions were arbitrary. Two trial judges agreed and granted injunctions to block the league’s action. That allowed Ford and Melton to play all or part of the football season. They’ve now moved on to basketball and soccer.
The legal dispute is over. Although the league took both cases to the state Supreme Court, it has since withdrawn its appeals. The Supreme Court issued final orders of dismissal on Jan. 20.
“The families are extremely grateful because their sons had their futures on the line,” Allen said.
The rulings open the door to future challenges of the league’s rules, according to Allen.
“If a parent or student athlete feels they get an arbitrary decision from the high school league, they need to know that’s not the end of the battle,” he said.
Columbia attorney Robert E. Horner, who represented the league, said his client was prepared to defend both cases on their merits.
Horner said the league raised legitimate questions about why each student had moved from their old schools. He said evidence showed both were apparently unhappy about their playing time or position. One news report indicated Melton transferred from Gaffney after he was removed as the starting quarterback.
The league withdrew its appeals, Horner said, because the Supreme Court’s rulings would likely not have been made before Ford and Melton finished playing sports in May.
“So basically, even though it was going to be expedited, the ruling as it pertained to these two kids would be moot,” Horner told Lawyers Weekly. “Given that, and the fact that the league is going to entertain ways to make the rule clearer, they decided it would financially be in their best interest to withdraw the appeals.”
Ford: A Job Move
According to the order in Ford, Guardian ad Litem v. South Carolina High School League (Anderson Court of Common Pleas No. 2005-CP-04-2358), Cameron Ford’s transfer stemmed from his father’s job as president of Spectrum Global, Inc. Mr. Ford said he needed to move nearer to an around-the-clock production facility where he could be available on an emergency basis.
Cameron had previously attended Palmetto High School in Anderson County’s District 1. He transferred at the start of his junior year to T.L. Hanna High School in District 5.
After Cameron switched schools, a complaint protesting his eligibility was filed with the league.
The league’s executive director, Jerome Singleton, investigated Ford’s case and declared him ineligible under league rules. He found Ford’s move was not bona fide and had been made for athletic reasons.
Singleton reversed part of his ruling, deciding the Ford family’s move was bona fide but nevertheless done for an athletic reason.
Singleton then advised Mr. Ford and the principal at T.L. Hanna High School to request “special conditions eligibility” pursuant to league provisions.
The league’s full Executive Committee heard Ford’s appeal on Aug. 24, 2005 and voted 9-4 to uphold Singleton’s earlier decision.
Allen filed a motion for a temporary injunction with the Anderson County clerk of court on Aug. 30, 2005. The injunction was needed, Allen argued, “because the potential lost year of eligibility can never be recaptured.”
Allen’s motion focused on the arbitrariness of the league’s rules. Under a 1972 case involving the league, Bruce v. South Carolina High School League, 285 S.C. 546, 189 S.E.2nd 817, the state Supreme Court held that rulings of tribunals at voluntary associations were conclusive on appeal absent a showing of mistake, fraud, illegality, collusion or arbitrariness.
“Bruce is the seminal case on the issue,” Allen said. “It shows even though the high school league is a voluntary association, and the courts give much deference to it for obvious reasons, nonetheless even a voluntary association cannot conduct itself and its affairs in an arbitrary way. If they do, then you can get relief from the court.”
Horner argued that the league’s provisions were not arbitrary.
“Our argument was that the rules don’t create an arbitrary classification of people,” Horner said. “It’s simply a rule that was agreed to by the members, including T.L. Hanna and Dorman. Whether or not an individual member agreed with the rule, it was one that all the members of the league voted on and adopted and agreed to. So that can’t make it arbitrary.
“If the league wanted to make everyone wear Nike shoes, and if everyone agreed to it then it’s not really arbitrary because it’s a private group agreeing on what they want their rules to be,” Horner told Lawyers Weekly.
Judge J.C. Nicholson, in granting the injunction, made these findings and conclusions:
* The league’s special condition eligibility section had no standards for deciding when eligibility should be granted or denied and was arbitrary on its face. “[T]his absence of standards is inconsistent with the league’s own purpose of setting uniform standards as described in the preamble to its constitution,” Judge Nicholson found.
* Also arbitrary, according to Judge Nicholson’s findings, was a provision that stated the executive director’s decision on eligibility would not be precedent in other similar cases.
The league appealed and sought a writ of supersedeas. The Appeals Court and Supreme Court denied the writ, but the Supreme Court agreed to hear the underlying appeal on an expedited basis.
In Nick Melton’s case, Melton, Guardian ad Litem v. South Carolina High School League (Richland County No. 2005-CP-40-05003), the move stemmed from academic issues at his old school, according to the court order.
Melton, according to findings by Judge L. Casey Manning, is “an outstanding football and basketball player” with aspirations of becoming a scholarship college player.
One online ranking service listed Melton as South Carolina’s 39th best player.
The problem: Melton, who is now in his senior year, would be considered academically ineligible to play at the college level because of his low grade point average at Gaffney High School in Cherokee County.
Last summer, Melton’s family moved to Spartanburg County and Melton enrolled in Dorman High School.
According to Judge Manning’s order, Melton’s family believed their son would do better academically under Dorman’s four-block class system.
As in the Ford case, a protest was filed with the league over Melton’s move.
“The school district that Melton left pitched a fit,” Allen said. “He was their quarterback, and he’s got a real future. He’ll definitely play college football.”
Singleton ruled Melton ineligible and directed him to seek special conditions eligibility, but the league’s Executive Committee also denied him eligibility.
Melton’s first attorney moved for a TRO and an injunction. Judge J. Derham Cole, the first trial judge who considered the matter, issued a Sept. 2, 2005 order that remanded the case for more investigation.
Allen said he got involved in the case about halfway through the high school football season.
In October, after the Court of Appeals had denied the writ in the Ford case, Judge Manning granted a temporary injunction to Melton. Judge Manning concluded the league’s transfer rules were “inartfully drawn and incapable of interpretation due to grammatical errors and deficiencies which result in arbitrariness.”
According to news reports, Melton missed the first eight games before the injunction was handed down. However, he was Dorman’s starting quarterback for the Dorman-Gaffney state semifinal match-up on Nov. 25. Gaffney won 35-21.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear the issues in Melton but dismissed that case, as well as Ford, after the league dropped both appeals.
Horner said the league will revisit its rules this spring with the aim of clarifying what constitutes a transfer for an improper athletic purpose.
“If we redo the rule and someone wants to challenge it later, our thinking is the rule will be much stronger and it will be much harder for someone to argue it’s vague or ambiguous or arbitrary, particularly if we delineated all the factors that we would consider in deciding whether someone transferred for athletic intent,” Horner said.
Melton is currently on his school’s basketball team, while Ford plans to play soccer in the spring.
“From what I understand, Melton’s the leading scorer on the basketball team now,” Allen said.