Shane Schafer of Andrean High School in Merrillville, Ind., missed much of his junior year of high school and basketball because of a severe sinus illness, so he wanted to get an extra year of eligibility to go with the fifth year of school he would have to take to make up the work he missed.
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The Indiana High School Athletic Association said no, starting a legal fight that is not yet completely settled — even though Schafer is now 39 years old, and has two children of his own.
In a case stretching back  years, the Indiana Court of Appeals [on Dec. 17] ruled [unanimously] that a former Andrean High School basketball player, whose eligibility to play repeatedly was blocked by the Indiana High School Athletic Association, can recoup his attorney fees from the association.
Former Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard, writing for the appeals court, said the IHSAA’s seven failed attempts to deny Schafer’s eligibility met the “unreasonable” litigation standard required for a judge to award attorney fees.
Shepard said the three-judge appeals panel agreed with the lower court judges who said the IHSAA was improperly using this case to send a warning to parents of student-athletes not to challenge IHSAA eligibility decisions.
How does a high school eligibility court case last long enough to reach Schafer’s golden uniform number, 22?
It’s a tribute to the tenacious defense played by the IHSAA, and the relentless offense played by Schafer’s attorney — his uncle Timothy, a personal-injury lawyer in Merrillville, about 40 miles from downtown Chicago. It’s also a tribute to how the legal process seems to play out as a life of its own. At one point during the legal proceedings, a judge asked then-IHSAA commissioner Eugene Cato why the organization kept fighting. His response, according to court documents: “I don’t know.” (To get a sense how long this case has lasted, Cato stepped down from that position in 1995, and died in 2008.)
The tenaciousness on each side is also a tribute to an issue as emotional as a high school player’s eligiblity: who is going to pay the attorney fees.
The back story: Schafer missed most of 1990-91, his nominal junior year, because he needed multiple surgeries to correct a severe sinus problem. His high school suggested he restart 1991-92 as a junior academically, which is why his family asked the IHSAA to consider him a junior in regard to his basketball eligibility, rather than a senior, for 1991-92.
The IHSAA said no to that request, citing its rule that athletes are eligible for eight consecutive semesters (though there is an exception for illness that the association chose not to use for no stated reason). Once the organization’s executive committee denied Schafer’s appeal of that decision, the family on Nov. 12, 1991, sued the IHSAA.
A judge issued a temporary restraining order within the next week that allowed Schafer to play as a junior. But in an indication of how difficult this fight was going to be, the IHSAA found another rule that would keep him off the court completely for a little while. It said Schafer would be ineligible for the fall semester, citing a rule that says any player not eligible the previous semester [because Schafer couldn't go to school because of illness] can’t play the following semester.
The case bounced between two county courts (the IHSAA requested the case be moved out of Schafer’s home Lake County) and state courts of appeals over the next year. The upshot was that Schafer’s ineligiblity for the fall 1991 semester was upheld, but that he would be granted an extra year of eligibility to play basketball his fifth, senior year in school. During the course of the case, judges variously described the IHSAA’s actions against Schafer as “arbitrary and capricious” that became an “absurdity.”
Since then, the battle between the Shafer and the IHSAA has been over who will pay his legal fees. Twice, in 2003 and 2009, the IHSAA has been ordered to pay $86,231 in legal fees to the Shafer family, and twice the organization has appealed. On Dec. 17, the Indiana Court of Appeals, one more time, told the IHSAA to pay up. From its ruling:
A trial court may award attorney’s fees when a party continues to litigate the case
after the party’s claims have become frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless. Here, the trial court ordered fees after finding that the litigation conduct by the Indiana High School Athletic Association in trying to prevent a student from playing for his school demonstrated all three of these.
We conclude that, at the least, the trial court was within its discretion to hold that
the course of conduct by IHSAA was “unreasonable” and that it could consider the
multiple rulings adverse to IHSAA in reaching that decision.
We thus affirm the imposition of fees.
The IHSAA has not yet stated whether it will appeal this ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court, so this case isn’t over yet. [IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox told the Northwest Indiana Times the latest ruling was "disappointing."] The legal bills aren’t over, either. Timothy Schafer told The Indianapolis Star that the bill is now more than $100,000.
“This whole thing just made no sense,” Timothy S. Schafer said.
“Clearly, it was not in Shane’s best interest. The IHSAA did everything in its power to hold him down. It was just abusive and it would have been cost-prohibitive for someone without a lot of money or a lawyer in the family to fight them.”
Oh, by the way, Shane Schafer, by his admission an average player for whom the fight was about being part of a team rather than showcasing himself for a college and pro career, missed much of his 1992-93 senior season with a broken hand.