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Porrata v. Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Ass'n, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 14, 2014

OMAR PORRATA, Plaintiff,
v.
PENNSYLVANIA INTERSCHOLASTIC ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION, INC., Defendant

For OMAR PORRATA, Plaintiff: MATTHEW J. DESCHLER, LEAD ATTORNEY, LITTNER DESCHLER & LITTNER, BETHLEHEM, PA.

For PENNSYLVANIA INTERSCHOLASTIC ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION, INC., Defendant: ALAN R. BOYNTON, JR., CAROL A. STEINOUR, MCNEES WALLACE & NURICK LLC, HARRISBURG, PA.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION

EDWARD G. SMITH, J.

Presently before the court is the motion for preliminary injunctive relief filed by the plaintiff, Omar Porrata (" Porrata" ). As

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explained below, the court will deny the motion.

I. JURISDICTION

The court has subject-matter jurisdiction over this action under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

II. VENUE

Venue is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2).

III. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On April 17, 2014, Porrata commenced this action against the defendant, Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, Inc. (" PIAA" ), by filing a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County. See Notice of Removal (" Notice" ), at Ex. A, Compl., Doc. No. 1-2. In the complaint, Porrata alleges that Palisades High School employed him as the head coach of its high school wrestling team. Compl. at ¶ ¶ 3-5. On January 30, 2014, the Palisades High School wrestling team was scheduled to wrestle against Bethlehem Catholic High School in the District XI, Class AA team tournament at Catasauqua High School. Id. at ¶ 25. Instead of wrestling Bethlehem Catholic High School, Porrata decided to forfeit all ten weight-classes for which Palisades High School had entered wrestlers. Id. at ¶ 26. Based on this conduct, the District XI Committee later held a hearing after which it determined that Porrata had engaged in unsportsmanlike conduct and imposed sanctions on Palisades High School and Porrata. Id. at ¶ ¶ 37-52. Although Porrata appealed from this decision to the PIAA Board of Appeal, the Board of Appeal generally affirmed the sanctions and expanded one of the sanctions to prohibit any PIAA school employing Porrata as a coach from competing in the 2014-2015 postseason. Id. at ¶ ¶ 56-65.

Based on, inter alia, the aforementioned allegations, Porrata asserts causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his due process and equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Id. at 10-12. Porrata also includes causes of action for defamation and for declaratory judgment. Id. at 12-13.

On the same date that Porrata filed the complaint, he also filed a petition for preliminary injunctive relief. The Honorable Paula A. Roscioli of the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County entered a rule to show cause as to why the court should not grant the petition. Porrata v. Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Ass'n, No. C-48-CV-2014-3437, Rule to Show Cause, Doc. No. 1-4. Judge Roscioli set the rule returnable date for April 24, 2014. Id.

Just two days prior to the rule returnable date on the petition for preliminary injunctive relief, i.e. April 22, 2014, the PIAA removed the case to federal court under 28 U.S.C. § § 1331, 1441, and 1446. Notice at 1. The undersigned held a conference with counsel on April 24, 2014, after which the court entered an order scheduling the matter for an evidentiary hearing on Porrata's request for a preliminary injunction. Doc. No. 4. The court also ordered the parties to provide memoranda of law in support of their respective positions. Id.

Porrata filed the instant motion for preliminary injunctive relief and a brief in support of the motion on April 25, 2014. Doc. Nos. 5, 6. The PIAA filed a brief in support of its opposition to the motion on April 29, 2014. The court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion on May 1, 2014. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court ordered the parties to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of

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law. Both parties filed proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on May 12, 2014.

IV. FINDINGS OF FACT

After carefully considering the evidence presented during the evidentiary hearing on May 1, 2014 and, after assigning such weight to the evidence as we deemed proper and disregarding the testimony that the court found to lack credibility, the pertinent facts are as follows:

A. The PIAA

1. The PIAA is a non-profit, membership organization consisting of approximately 1420 public and private schools. Tr. of Evidentiary Hrg. for Prelim. Inj. (" Inj. Tr." ) at 326, 327, Doc. No. 13; Pl.'s Ex. 2, 2013-2014 PIAA Const. and By-Laws at 2, PIAA Const. art. II, § § 1, 2, art. III, § 1.

2. The PIAA oversees interscholastic athletic competitions between its member schools. Pl.'s Ex. 2, 2013-2014 PIAA Const. and By-Laws at 4, PIAA Const. art. VII.

3. Approximately 350,000 student-athletes participate in PIAA-sanctioned sports in a given year. Inj. Tr. at 327.

4. The PIAA constantly stresses sportsmanship. Inj. Tr. at 60.

5. There are a number of schools in Pennsylvania that do not belong to the PIAA. Inj. Tr. at 327. Nonetheless, an " overwhelming majority" of the public high schools are members of the PIAA. Id. at 358.

6. The PIAA's purpose is as follows:

A. Health.

To organize, develop, and direct an interscholastic athletic program which promotes, protects, and conserves the health and physical welfare of all participants.

B. Education.
To formulate and maintain policies that safeguards the educational values of interscholastic athletics and cultivates the high ideals of good sportsmanship.
C. Competition.
To promote uniformity of standards in all interscholastic athletic competition.

Pl.'s Ex. 2, 2013-2014 PIAA Const. and By-Laws at 1, PIAA Const. art. II, § 1; see Inj. Tr. at 327.

7. The PIAA seeks to " promote, protect, and serve the educational values of interscholastic athletics and promote the ideals of good sportsmanship." Inj. Tr. at 327.

8. The PIAA is divided into districts to assist with organization, legislation, and administration. Pl.'s Ex. 2, 2013-2014 PIAA Const. and By-Laws at 2, PIAA Const. art. V, § 1.

9. Each PIAA district has a district committee, which maintains " general control within the District over all interscholastic athletic relations and Contests in which a PIAA member school participates, subject to the provisions of the rules and regulations of the Board of Directors." Pl.'s Ex. 2, 2013-2014 PIAA Const. and By-Laws at 6, PIAA Const. art. IX, § 3A.

10. The members of a particular district determine the makeup of each district committee. Pl.'s Ex. 2, 2013-2014 PIAA Const. and By-Laws at 5, PIAA Const. art. IX, § 1A.

11. At all times relevant to this litigation, Robert Hartman (" Hartman" ) served as the chairman of the PIAA District XI Committee (the " Committee" ). See, e.g., Pl.'s Ex. 1, Tr. of Feb. 16, 2014 Dist. XI Comm. Hrg. (" Comm. Hrg. Tr." ) (noting Hartman as chairman of the Committee).

12. The PIAA district committees have the power to " address alleged violations of

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the Constitution, By-Laws, Policies and Procedures, and Rules and Regulations of PIAA" and to " fix and enforce penalties, within the District, for violation[s] of the Constitution, and By-Laws, Policies and Procedures, and Rules and Regulations of PIAA, within the limits prescribed by the By-Laws." Pl.'s Ex. 2, 2013-2014 PIAA Const. and By-Laws at 6, PIAA Const. art. IX, § 1G, H.

13. Generally, each district has one representative on the PIAA Board of Directors, which is the administrative and executive body of the PIAA with " general control over all interscholastic athletic relations and Contests in which a PIAA member school participates." Pl.'s Ex. 2, 2013-2014 PIAA Const. and By-Laws at 3, PIAA Const. art. VI, § § 1, 2, art. VII, § 1A.

14. The PIAA Board of Directors has the power " [t]o investigate, request, receive and/or otherwise obtain information (written and/or oral), hear and decide appeals from decisions of . . . District Committees." Pl.'s Ex. 2 at 4, PIAA Const. art. VIII, § 1G; see Pl.'s Ex. 3, PIAA Policies and Procedures at 25, § II (stating that the PIAA Board of Directors and PIAA Board of Appeal has the power to " investigate, hear, and decide appeals from decisions of . . . District Committees" ).

15. The PIAA Board of Directors may " fix and enforce penalties for any violation of the Constitution, By-Laws, Policies and Procedures, and Rules and Regulations of PIAA and such other by-laws, policies, procedures, rules, and regulations as it may, from time to time, adopt." Pl.'s Ex. 2, 2013-2014 PIAA Const. and By-Laws at 4, PIAA Const. art. VII, § 1I.

16. Dr. Robert A. Lombardi is the executive director of the PIAA. Inj. Tr. at 325-26.

17. Dr. Lombardi has served as the executive director for the past two years, and he has worked with the PIAA for the past 26 years. Inj. Tr. at 326.

18. As executive director, Dr. Lombardi is responsible for " carrying out policies and procedures of the board of directors, . . . being the supervisory person of [the PIAA's] interscholastic championship contests, registration, and training of sports officials and handling . . . the PIAA headquarters [from] an operational standpoint." Inj. Tr. at 326.

19. Dr. Lombardi also serves as the secretary for the Board of Directors. Inj. Tr. at 334.

20. The PIAA attempts to follow its Policies and Procedures " very closely." Inj. Tr. at 342.

B. Porrata as Coach of the Palisades High School Wrestling Team

21. Porrata has worked as a teacher at Liberty High School (" Liberty" ) in the Bethlehem Area School District for the past ten years. Inj. Tr. at 19-20, 21. During that time, he also served as an assistant wrestling coach at Liberty for four years and as the head wrestling coach for Palisades High School (" Palisades H.S." ) since 2008. Id. at 20, 21, 60.

22. Palisades H.S. participates as a PIAA member school in PIAA District XI. Inj. Tr. at 26.

23. Prior to Porrata's arrival, Palisades H.S.'s wrestling team had been mired in an extensive losing streak and had gone through multiple coaches. Inj. Tr. at 21, 160. Also, out of 14 possible weight classes, Palisades H.S. had only five wrestlers. Id. at 23.

24. To change the culture of the wrestling program, Porrata began working on building the program by assisting the youth and junior high wrestling programs, which had kids that would eventually attend

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Palisades H.S. Inj. Tr. at 23, 26, 161. In this regard, Porrata assisted with youth and junior high wrestling practices at night after the conclusion of high school practices. Id. at 24-25, 26. He also would attend youth and junior high tournaments and matches on weekends. Id. at 25, 26.

25. Porrata's commitment to the wrestling program was a year-long endeavor. Inj. Tr. at 24.

26. Porrata's efforts were very successful, as the Palisades H.S. wrestling team went from finishing in the bottom three in District XI to finishing in the top three two years ago. Inj. Tr. at 23.

27. Porrata acknowledges that teaching sportsmanship is an important part of a coach's job. Inj. Tr. at 60.

28. Porrata attended the mandatory rules interpretation committee meeting for coaches, which included a presentation about sportsmanship. Inj. Tr. at 60-61.

29. In October 2013, Porrata signed a " PALISADES SCHOOL DISTRICT EXTRA DUTY ACTIVITIES CONTRACT" (the " Agreement" ). Inj. Tr. at 26, 27, 28; Pl.'s Ex. 10. The Agreement states in pertinent part as follows:

The Palisades School District and Omar Porrata hereby enter into the following agreement: Employee agrees to coach Wrestling Head Coach [sic] according to . . . the requirements outlined in the section titled " Extra Duty/Extra Pay Program" of the Agreement Between The Palisades School Board and the Palisades Education Association.
. . .
This contract shall terminate in the event that the employee is relieved of outlined responsibilities because of violation(s) of School District Policy(ies) or for cause as set forth by Statute in the School Laws of Pennsylvania.
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Pl.'s Ex. 10. As indicated by the Agreement, Palisades paid Porrata $6,954.00 in salary for the 2013-2014 season. Id.; Inj. Tr. at 28, 107, 108.

C. The January 30, 2014 Wrestling Match Against Bethlehem Catholic and the Events Leading up to the District XI Committee Hearing

30. For the 2013-2014 wrestling season, Palisades H.S. was able to field only ten or eleven wrestlers for the fourteen weight classes. Inj. Tr. at 31.

31. On January 30, 2014, the Palisades H.S. wrestling team participated in the District XI Wrestling Class 2A team tournament at Catasauqua High School. See Inj. Tr. at 31; Pl.'s Ex. 1, Comm. Hrg. Tr. at 9.

32. On January 30, 2014, Palisades H.S. participated in two matches, the first against Jim Thorpe High School (" Jim Thorpe" ) and the second against Bethlehem Catholic High School (" Bethlehem Catholic" ). Pl.'s Ex. 1, Comm. Hrg. Tr. at 31.

33. At approximately 8:37 a.m. on January 30, 2014, Porrata sent a text message to another team's wrestling coach indicating that " [m]y team's hurting, stomach virus all around." Inj. Tr. at 127-28; Pl.'s Ex. 20.

34. Palisades H.S. won the first match against Jim Thorpe. Pl.'s Ex. 1, Comm. Hrg. Tr. at 10, 51; Def.'s Ex. 2.

35. Palisades H.S. wrestlers weighed-in for ten of the fourteen weight classes against Jim Thorpe. Def. Ex. 2; Pl.'s Ex. 1, Comm. Hrg. Tr. at 42.

36. One of the winning Palisades H.S. wrestlers won his match against Jim Thorpe by forfeit after Porrata had him weigh in to get a forfeit even though he

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could not actually wrestle because of an injury to his ear. Pl.'s Ex. 1, Comm. Hrg. Tr. at 36-37.

37. After Palisades H.S. won against Jim Thorpe, they were scheduled to wrestle Bethlehem Catholic at approximately 7:00 p.m. that evening. Pl.'s Ex. 1, Comm. Hrg. Tr. at 57.

38. Porrata had initially planned on using his aforementioned ineligible wrestler to obtain a forfeit at the 195-pound weight class because Bethlehem Catholic did not have a wrestler at this weight class. Pl.'s Ex. 1, Comm. Hrg. Tr. at 36-37, 47.

39. Palisades H.S. sent wrestling captains to the pre-match coin toss. Pl.'s Ex. 1, Comm. Hrg. Tr. at 61.

40. Despite participating in the coin toss, at Porrata's direction Palisades H.S. forfeited all fourteen weight classes in the match against Bethlehem Catholic. Inj. Tr. at 31.

41. Some, but not all, of the Palisades H.S. wrestlers were ill or injured at the time of the Bethlehem Catholic match. Pl.'s Ex. 1, Comm. Hrg. Tr. at 46.

42. After each individual wrestler went out to the table to wrestle, Porrata would tell the referee that the team was going to forfeit that particular bout. Inj. Tr. at 68.

43. Porrata did not tell the opposing coach, the meet official, or the referee of his plan to forfeit each match. Inj. Tr. at 65-66, 68, 69, 70.

44. Porrata did not consider contacting any Palisades H.S. officials about the forfeit. Inj. Tr. at 130.

45. No Palisades H.S. official or administrator was present for the match against Bethlehem Catholic. Inj. Tr. at 81, 235, 283.

46. The final score of the match between Palisades H.S. and Bethlehem Catholic was 84-0 in favor of Bethlehem Catholic. Def.'s Ex. 2.

47. Most of the parents of the Palisades H.S. wrestlers stood and clapped following the forfeiture. Inj. Tr. at 202, 203.[1]

48. Although some of the Palisades H.S. wrestlers were injured or ill at the time of the Bethlehem Catholic match, Porrata's statement that he forfeited the match in the manner that he did because his team was injured or ill lacks credibility.

49. Porrata does not believe he was acting in an unsportsmanlike-fashion when he did not tell the Bethlehem Catholic coach of his plan to forfeit. Inj. Tr. at 65, 66.

50. After the forfeiture, Porrata did not discuss what he had done with the press because he was angry at the reporter covering the tournament. Inj. Tr. at 70, 112; Pl.'s Ex. 1, Comm. Hrg. Tr. at 54-55.

51. Larry Wasser (" Wasser" ) confronted Bethlehem Catholic's coach after the match. Inj. Tr. at 206.

52. Wasser felt that Bethlehem Catholic had disrespected the Palisades H.S. team when certain wrestlers were out on the mat during warm-ups even though they did not weigh-in. Inj. Tr. at 199.

53. Wasser also thought that the Bethlehem Catholic coach was disrespectful when he did not get into line to shake hands after the match. Inj. Tr. at 206.

54. Richard Heffernan (" Heffernan" ) has served as the principal of Palisades H.S. for the past eleven years. Inj. Tr. at 234.

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55. Heffernan has an extensive background in athletics, which includes his participation as a college football player at Fordham University and his subsequent experience coaching football at the collegiate and high school levels. Inj. Tr. at 234-35. In addition, he has served on the Colonial League executive board and served one term as the District XI Committee chairperson from 2008 through 2010. Id. at 235.

56. On the night of January 30, 2014, Heffernan was on his way to Vermont with his wife and child for an extended weekend. Inj. Tr. at 235. During this trip, Heffernan received notice that Palisades H.S. had forfeited the match against Bethlehem Catholic. Id. at 235-36.

57. Immediately after receiving notice of the forfeit, Heffernan contacted Dr. Bridget O'Connell, superintendent of the Palisades School District, to inform her of what happened during the match. Inj. Tr. at 236.

58. Based on his conversation with Dr. O'Connell, Heffernan called Porrata to inquire about the match with Bethlehem Catholic. Inj. Tr. at 71, 236.

59. During Heffernan's conversation with Porrata, Porrata informed Heffernan that he had forfeited all matches against Bethlehem Catholic. Inj. Tr. at 32, 71, 234, 236.

60. When Heffernan asked Porrata why he forfeited the matches, Porrata told him he did that because Bethlehem Catholic weighed-in their junior varsity wrestlers and it was disrespecting the Palisades wrestlers. Inj. Tr. at 236. In addition, Porrata noted that the Bethlehem Catholic wrestlers who were in street clothes were goofing around on the mat prior to the meet, and he was not going to allow the Palisades H.S. wrestlers to be treated like that. Id.

61. During this conversation with Heffernan, Porrata did not state that he forfeited the match because the team was unable to physically perform because of injury or illness. Inj. Tr. at 236-37.

62. Porrata's then-fiancé (and now-wife), Megan Brewington Porrata, overheard Porrata's side of the telephone conversation with Heffernan. Inj. Tr. at 215-16.

63. Heffernan had never heard of a team forfeiting a match in a manner similar to the forfeiture against Bethlehem Catholic. Inj. Tr. at 237.

64. After speaking to Porrata, Heffernan contacted Dr. O'Connell and told her about his conversation with Porrata. Inj. Tr. at 237. Dr. O'Connell then told Heffernan that he should call Porrata and tell him that he is suspended pending a full investigation. Id.

65. Heffernan then called Porrata and indefinitely suspended Porrata from his duties as wrestling coach pending a full investigation. Inj. Tr. at 71, 237.

66. Heffernan also called Hartman to apologize for the conduct of the Palisades H.S. wrestling team and coach and to inform him that the school was immediately suspending Porrata pending a full investigation. Inj. Tr. at 32, 238.

67. Rebecca George (" George" ) has served as the athletic director of the Palisades School District for the past eleven years. Inj. Tr. at 281.

68. During the night after the forfeit, Porrata sent a text message to George, stating: " Sorry for letting you down, I wish you could see it the way I saw it, I will not have my kids treated the way they were tonight, they worked too hard . . . thanks for the opportunity." Def.'s Ex. 1; Inj. Tr. at 79, 80, 113, 114, 282.

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69. Because of Palisades H.S.'s forfeiture against Bethlehem Catholic, the Committee scheduled a hearing. Pl.'s Ex. 11.

70. When a district committee schedules a hearing, the 2013-2014 PIAA Policies and Procedures provide ...


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