Family sues LHSAA; seeks to have ill son compete in sports

After dealing with a life-altering illness, and the psychological aftermath, Sean Thiel and his parents wanted the remainder of his high school years to be as normal as possible.

They viewed sports as a conduit to achieve that normality, but the Louisiana High School Athletic Association ruled Thiel was ineligible to compete, disqualified after missing too much school because of illness.

Then, during a recent hearing LHSAA denied him a hardship waiver without an explanation.

Now the family is asking a federal court judge to bar the state high school athletics governing body from stopping Thiel from competing with his teammates — on the baseball diamond this spring and possibly the basketball court and football field in the fall. The family also is asking the judge to order the LHSAA to grant Thiel a hardship waiver and to prevent the organization from penalizing the school because of his participation.

Thiel, 18, is a sophomore at Family Christian Academy in Baton Rouge. He is a member of the school’s baseball team but cannot participate. He turns 19 after Sept. 1, which would keep him eligible to play sports for the 2014-15 school year.

Any student who turns 19 before Sept. 1 of that school year is ineligible to compete.

LHSAA Executive Director Kenny Henderson said Wednesday he would not comment on the matter because it is the organization’s policy not to comment on pending litigation.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Baton Rouge, the family alleges the LHSAA discriminated against their son because of his disability and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Sean Thiel’s equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment when it denied him a hardship waiver despite the fact the family says he met the requirements for the waiver.

The lawsuit says Thiel does have a disability within the meaning of the ADA.

Thiel suffers from achalasia, a rare disease that affects the esophagus and the ability of the esophagus to move food to the stomach, and has missed school intermittently for several years.

Achalasia is incurable, but Thiel’s condition has been stabilized after surgery at the Mayo Clinic more than three years ago, his father said Wednesday.

“It makes it very difficult to swallow food or drink,” Michael Thiel said. “Before the surgery, he was starving.”

Sean Thiel also suffers from anxiety about his eating problems, especially when eating in front of people, and the anxiety would “shut him down when it came to eating,” his father said.

A student is eligible for a hardship waiver if “the condition that caused the student-athlete not to meet the basic eligibility requirements is involuntary, unforeseen, uncorrectable, and creates a unique situation concerning the student-athlete’s educational, emotional, or physical status that is beyond the control of the school, the school system, the student and/or his/her parents or guardian,” the LHSAA website says.

“Given Sean’s unique circumstances, and the ample documentation of those circumstances, and the exact matching of those circumstances to LHSAA’s own promulgated criteria for granting a hardship waiver, LHSAA’s unexplained decision is arbitrary, capricious, and without a rational basis,” the suit alleges.

The family also filed a request for a temporary injunction to prevent the LHSAA from stopping him from playing.

“We’re not after money; we’re not after publicity,” Michael Thiel said. “We just want him to play and participate because this is his last chance.”

The two eligibility requirements mentioned in the suit are that a student has eight semesters to play sports once that student enters the ninth grade and the student is not allowed to play in the second semester of the school year if that student does not pass at least six units from the first semester.

Sean Thiel has missed school for the entire fall 2013 semester, the suit says, and the family was not surprised the LHSAA denied their initial attempts based on the second eligibility requirement.

But Michael Thiel, a lawyer himself, said they were stunned Feb. 20 when the five-person panel denied him the hardship waiver for this semester in a 5-0 vote and a hardship waiver for next semester in a 4-1 vote.

“We want every inducement, every benefit we have for keeping this child in school, and given his fragile composition emotionally, we don’t want this setback to get the point where he obviously gives up,” Michael Thiel said.

The case has been assigned to Judge James Brady.