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Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal judge has ruled that a learning-disabled student who was barred from playing high school sports after he reached the age of 19 must be given a chance to prove that his continued participation wouldn’t give his team an unfair advantage. In an injunction handed down Wednesday, federal Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association to create a process in which it can consider bending the age rule for Luis Cruz. The ruling marks a reversal of sorts since Buckwalter refused to issue an emergency injunction in November that would have allowed Cruz to play in last year’s football play-offs. But since then, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in PGA Tour Inc. v. Casey Martin in which the high court ruled in favor of a disabled golfer who said he needed golf officials to bend their rules against players riding in carts. In Wednesday’s decision, Buckwalter said that he had been waiting for the Martin decision and that its new test clearly applies to Cruz’s case. “In Martin, the Supreme Court made clear that a basic requirement of the ADA is the evaluation of a disabled person on an individual basis,” Buckwalter said. The Martin decision announced a three-prong test for cases in which disabled athletes challenge rules that have the effect of barring them from competition: The athlete’s requested modification must be reasonable; it must be necessary for the disabled individual; and it cannot fundamentally alter the nature of the competition. Applying the test to Cruz’s case, Buckwalter strongly suggested that Cruz, a student at Ridley High School in Delaware County, Pa., could easily win a waiver of the PIAA age rule that would allow him to play football and run with the track team since he is far from a star in either sport. However, since Cruz had a winning record as a wrestler, the judge said it wasn’t as clear that he could win a waiver of the rule for that sport. But the judge said the PIAA still has the right to make the final call as long as it provides Cruz with a chance to make his case. If PIAA fails or refuses to create a waiver process for Cruz to use, Buckwalter said, the injunction would prohibit PIAA from enforcing the age rule against him. Cruz had an especially strong case because, as a disabled student, he has an “individualized education plan” that specifically calls for him to participate in sports due to the positive effect it has on helping him to learn social skills and develop responsibility in following rules and keeping schedules. Last year, Cruz played in two games before school officials realized that he was ineligible due to the age rule. The PIAA then declared that the two games — both Ridley wins — should be considered forfeit losses. As a result, Ridley was denied a slot in the play-offs. The Ridley school district joined Cruz in going to court, arguing that the PIAA age rule should bend since it violates Cruz’s rights under both the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. But after a four-hour hearing in November, Buckwalter refused to issue an emergency injunction, saying that such an order was an “extreme” remedy and that Ridley had not proven that Cruz would suffer any “irreparable harm” if he were barred from competitive play. Buckwalter said he himself “warmed the bench” often while a member of a high school football team and that he still got a lot out of the experience. Since Cruz can still practice with the team and suit up for games, Buckwalter said he could not see any “irreparable” harm. Ridley’s lawyer, Arthur Levy, argued that Cruz’s advanced age as a high school senior is a direct result of his learning disabilities, but that he was not violating PIAA’s rule that bars playing in more than eight semesters. After the emergency injunction hearing, both sides filed briefs. Cruz continued to seek an injunction, and PIAA urged the judge to deny it. Attorneys Alan R. Boynton of McNees Wallace & Nurick, along with PIAA in-house lawyer Jeffrey F. Champagne, argued that forcing PIAA to create a waiver process would create an “undue burden.” Assessing whether an over-age student would have a competitive advantage over opponents in a given sport would be unreasonable, they said, since the process would require complex fact-finding as well as extremely difficult judgments about leadership skills, motivational abilities, physical maturity, benefits of experience, quickness, agility, strength, and sport-specific abilities which are extremely difficult to measure. But Buckwalter found that PIAA already has a waiver process for other rules, such as when a student wants to play more than eight semesters or after a midyear transfer. “In view of the apparent ability of the PIAA to make what must be very difficult decisions in those waiver cases, I do not believe that an age waiver rule would put an undue burden on the PIAA,” Buckwalter wrote. Buckwalter found that Cruz “will sustain irreparable harm if he is not permitted to participate in interscholastic competition in football and track because of his reaching age 19 before he could compete in eight semesters which resulted from his learning disability.” After conducting a balancing test, Buckwalter found that “the interests here is clearly in favor of plaintiff. He is entitled to the benefits of the ADA. Denying him the relief he is entitled to under law is not in the public interest.” The case is Cruz v. PIAA.

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