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7th Circuit Upholds Summary Judgment for IHSA in Reasonable Accommodation Lawsuit

02/12/2018

On February 2, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of firm client Illinois High School Association (IHSA) in a case that centered on a high school student's claim that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required the IHSA to create a separate division with different qualifying time standards for para ambulatory runners. (A.H. v. Illinois High School Association) The student, “A.H.” is classified as a T-36 disabled athlete by the International Paralympic Committee, and he has been a three-sport athlete at Evanston Township High School since his freshman year. Although A.H. fully participated on the high school’s Track & Field team, he requested that the IHSA create a separate division with different time standards for para ambulatory runners in the Sectional and State championship track meets, as well as the annual 5K Road Race. When the IHSA didn’t accommodate A.H.’s requests, he filed suit seeking injunctive relief under the ADA. At the district court level, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the IHSA, finding that A.H.’s requests went beyond the scope of “reasonable accommodations” as required by the Act. In affirming the district court’s decision, the Seventh Circuit said, “… an accommodation is unreasonable if it imposes significant financial or administrative costs, or it fundamentally alters the nature of the program….”

The Seventh Circuit went on to state:

The IHSA's time standards, which govern which runners can qualify for the State championship, underscore the essence of the sport: one must run as fast as possible to achieve the predetermined times. According to the IHSA, the qualifying time standards ensure a certain level of competition and maintain a necessary scarcity of opportunity. To lower the qualifying times for State by creating a new division of runners would fundamentally alter the essential nature of the Sectional and State track and field meets, as well as the Road Race.

In conclusion, the court said:

A.H. currently has the opportunity to compete in the Sectionals meet in order to qualify for State, as well as an opportunity to compete for a medal in the Road Race. The IHSA guarantees A.H. this equality of opportunity, and by all accounts, A.H., his teammates, and coaches have benefitted tremendously from his participation on the track and field team. However, the IHSA is not required under federal law to guarantee A.H. the results he desires from those opportunities.

IHSA executive director Craig Anderson said in a statement that “The Illinois High School Association’s history is one of inclusion, as we have been successful in creating participation opportunities for millions of Illinois high school students, in both sports and activities, for over 100 years.” Anderson went on to say, “This ruling does not summarily prevent the IHSA from considering adding any future participation opportunities, instead, it simply emphasizes that we have successful procedures and protocols in place for our member schools to enact change as they see fit.”

The IHSA was represented by Heyl Royster attorneys Matt Hefflefinger, Craig Unrath, Tyler Pratt and Jessica Sarff.