On February 28, 2024, in Halter v. Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals concluded: (1) the WIAA is a state actor and, therefore, subject to judicial review to determine whether it acted in accord with its rules and regulations and in applying its rules in a nonarbitrary manner; (2) the WIAA applied its eligibility and appeal rules in a manner that was arbitrary and in accordance with its will and not its judgment; and (3) the student athlete who initiated judicial review is entitled to a permanent injunction reinstating his 2019 WIAA Division 1 state wrestling title.  Appeal No. 2021AP1525 (Wis. Ct. App. 2024).   

Hayden Halter was a Sophomore who wrestled for Waterford Union High School.  Near the end of the 2019 wrestling season, Halter won the championship of the Southern Lakes Conference wrestling meet.  While participating in the meet, Halter received two (2) unsportsmanlike conduct calls.

The WIAA’s Rules of Eligibility provided that an athlete receiving two (2) unsportsmanlike conduct calls in one meet was to be immediately ejected.  In addition, both the WIAA’s Rules of Eligibility and Seasonal Rule stated that “[a] student disqualified from a contest for flagrant or unsportsmanlike conduct, is suspended from interscholastic competition for no less than the next competitive event (but not less than one complete game or meet).”  As a result, Halter was immediately ejected from the Southern Lakes Conference wrestling meet and suspended from the “next competitive event.”  The WIAA took the position that the “next competitive event” was the Regional meet.

Halter sought to satisfy his suspension by registering for and then sitting out of the Badger Invitational (a varsity/junior varsity reserve meet that was scheduled to occur before the Regional meet).  Halter was eligible to compete in the Badger Invitational because he had not yet competed in the maximum number of regular season meets allowed by WIAA rules (due to having missed an earlier meet during the season because of injury).  The WIAA characterized Halter’s registration for the Badger Invitational as an attempt to “circumvent” its rules and declared him ineligible for the Regional meet.  The WIAA communicated to Halter’s coach and the Waterford athletic director that its decision on Halter’s ineligibility for the Regional meet (affirmed by the WIAA Executive Director) was final and unappealable.

Halter sought and obtained a temporary restraining order from the circuit court allowing him to participate in the Regional meet and preventing the WIAA from deeming him ineligible to compete until further order.  Halter went on to win the Regional meet and, ultimately, to win a second WIAA state title for his weight class.

After a subsequent evidentiary hearing, the circuit court concluded that the WIAA’s interpretation of its rules, under which Halter was deemed ineligible to compete in the Regional meet, was “in accord with a long-standing policy of the WIAA,” did not violate Halter’s procedural or substantive due process rights and that the rules were “reasonable in their context and reasonably applied.”  As a result, Halter was stripped of his 2019 WIAA Division 1 state wrestling title.

Halter appealed the circuit court’s decision.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals determined the WIAA was a state actor subject to judicial review and then addressed two (2) issues relevant to the WIAA’s rules and the enforcement thereof: 

First, the Court of Appeals addressed the WIAA’s Rules of Eligibility.  The Court of Appeals deemed the Rules of Eligibility to be clear on its face, but poorly drafted so that it did not communicate a key disciplinary component – The phrase “next competitive event” was not clearly defined in the Rules of Eligibility.  Accordingly, where, as here, there was a meet in between the violation meet and the Regional meet, the in-between meet could be interpreted as being the “next competitive event” at which the resulting suspension must be served.  In reaching this determination the Court of Appeals cited to the WIAA modifying the Rules of Eligibility after the circuit court issued the temporary restraining order in favor of Halter – Adding to the Rules of Eligibility that a suspension must be “served at the same level of competition as disqualification.”

The Court of Appeals opined that the WIAA is entitled to create its own rules and regulations, but that it must apply them fairly and treat member schools’ students reasonably.  Here, Halter relied upon the WIAA’s rules as they were written, but the WIAA deemed that Halter missing the Badger Invitational was not enough punishment for Halter’s conduct and his registration for the Badger Invitational an attempt to circumvent the rules.  This standard was not the standard set out in the WIAA’s rules and, therefore, the decision on the part of the WIAA to tailor the punishment to have greater impact on Halter was arbitrary – One of the WIAA’s will.

Second, the Court of Appeals addressed Halter’s right to appeal.  The Court of Appeals again deemed the Rules of Eligibility to be clear on its face – Allowing for mandatory appeals to the Board of Control.  However, when Halter disputed the WIAA’s determination that he was ineligible for the Regional meet by filing a Notice of Appeal with the Board of Control pursuant to the Rules of Eligibility, the appeal was denied outright as moot.

The Court of Appeals opined that the WIAA may establish whatever appeal process it believes appropriately balances the rights of its member schools and their students against the valid time restraints of its Board members, but once the WIAA establishes that appeal process, it is bound to adhere to the process it creates.  The WIAA ignoring its rules as to appeal was unreasonable and demonstrated an exercise of the WIAA’s will, not its judgment.

There are at least two (2) important takeaways from this case:

  1. The WIAA has been deemed a state actor that is subject to judicial review to determine whether the WIAA is acting in accordance with its rules and regulations and in applying its rules and regulations in a nonarbitrary manner.
  2. The WIAA (or any public entity for that matter) can establish whatever rules and regulations, including appeal processes, it believes appropriate, but once those rules, regulations and appeal processes are established, it is bound to adhere to those rules, regulations, and appeal processes, as written.

For questions regarding this article, please contact the author,

or your Renning, Lewis & Lacy attorney.

Tony J. Renning

Tony J. Renning

 trenning@law-rll.com | 920-718-7910

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