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USSF's Appeals Process – Answers to Some Common Questions

CHICAGO (Thursday, December 27, 2001) - As part of our continuing effort to service and educate our membership, each Thursday the U.S. Soccer Communications Center will send out an informative article from one of its departments.  Once a week, you will receive an article/paper/essay in your inbox that will hopefully enhance your enjoyment and knowledge of the game of soccer - on and off the field.

This week, an article from the U.S. Soccer Legal Department answers some of the most commonly asked questions about the appeals process.

USSF’s Appeals Process – Answers to Some Common Questions

USSF Bylaw 705 sets forth USSF “appeals” procedures.  Under these procedures, the USSF Appeals Committee considers appeals of certain state association decisions.  USSF’s legal department coordinates the appeals process – collecting arguments from the parties involved, distributing materials to the panels that decide the cases, and answering procedural questions from appellants and state associations.  Over the course of the past year, we have compiled a list of some of the most common questions.  This synopsis provides some answers to those questions.

Who makes up the panels that decide these appeals?Panels consist of three members of the Appeals Committee.  The Appeals Committee is made up of 35 volunteers selected and approved by the Board of Directors, coming from all over the country.  They are individuals who are active in state associations, youth leagues, professional leagues, and other various soccer organizations.  They include athletes who have played for our national teams.  In appeals involving an athlete, at least one athlete is placed on the panel.

What decisions are appealable?
The appeals panel considers decisions from state associations that have “consequences” that “extend beyond the competition.”  The term “consequences” usually refers to some sort of denial of the right to participate, play, or otherwise engage in activities sponsored by USSF or USSF and the state association.  For instance, a suspension for an extended period of time is a punishment with “consequences.”  “Competition” may include games, tournaments, league play or a regular season.  In other words, suspension for the remainder of a tournament would not have consequences that would make the decision appealable.

What does the appeals panel consider when it reviews a state decision?
The appeals panel must determine whether the state decision is “clearly erroneous.”  This means that the panel will usually defer to whatever factual findings were made at the state level, unless the panel determines that there is no basis for those findings.  This also means that, except for due process issues, the appeals panel must only consider arguments that the appellant raised at the state level.  In other words, the appellant cannot raise new arguments before the appeals panel that he or she didn’t raise with the state, because the state never had the opportunity to consider them.

The exception to this rule is due process.  USSF Bylaw 701 lays out a number of rights that appellants must have at a hearing, such as the right to be assisted, the right to impartial fact-finders, etc.  The appeals panel reviews the procedures that took place at the state level to consider whether the appellant was afforded all his or her rights.  Whether the appellant raises the issue or not, if the panel finds that the state failed to provide necessary rights, it will either remand the case back to the state, or, if the panel finds a remand would not remedy the denial of rights, will reverse the decision.

What materials does the appeals panel use when reaching its decision?
Generally, the panel only considers documents that are in the record.  The record contains the documents that were available to the state and thus the panel will rely on the same documents upon which the state relied. There are only two exceptions to this rule - both very rare exceptions. The first is if the appellant can show that certain evidence is relevant, but was unavailable when they were before the state.  The appellant will then be allowed to submit this new evidence, and the state will have an opportunity to respond to it.  The second is where the panel itself feels that additional information would be useful.  In these situations, the panel may in some cases ask one or both parties for additional documents related to a specific issue.

Of course, appellants often submit many documents that are not in the record, and that do not fit within the narrow exceptions described above. For instance, we often receive letters from friends talking about the reputation of the appellant, or explaining how the appellant “would never do such a thing.”  When we receive such documents, USSF does not usually contact the parties to tell them that the documents will not be considered, but the panel does not consider them.

What is the difference between an “appeal” and a “grievance”?
USSF bylaws provide two different mechanisms through which decisions are made by USSF.  The first, the appeals process that we discuss here, is provided for review of state association decisions.  The second, the grievance process, is provided for a wide variety of more general complaints.  The most common grievances are those filed pursuant to bylaw 704, where an individual or organization complains that one of the members of USSF (a state association, for example) is violating USSF bylaws.

The grievance process, unlike an appeal, typically does not focus on any one individual case, but instead focuses on a rule, or a policy, or certain activities of the USSF member organization.  For instance, a typical grievance will center around whether a member’s policy or rule complies with USSF bylaws.  An appeal, in contrast, simply centers around whether an individual was fairly treated and received due process under the policy or rule.

The key difference between a grievance and an appeal is the remedy one seeks.  In an appeal, the only remedy that the appeals panel has the power to provide is the reversal of a state decision.  In a grievance, the grievant can seek to have an entire rule or policy revoked.  Because the processes offer different remedies, in certain situations it may be possible that both processes could apply to the same dispute.  For instance, if a coach is suspended for a year by a state association for violating a rule, he may be able to appeal that decision to USSF, asking that his suspension be lifted.  However, he may also be able to file a grievance, asking that USSF declare that the rule should be revoked because the rule itself violates USSF bylaws.  He would not be able to have the rule revoked through his appeal – thus, he could conceivably file both an appeal and a grievance.

If I need a quick decision on an appeal, is a process available for doing so?
The USSF appeals process does not provide for any sort of “expedited” process.  We understand that appellants are often quite eager to have a ruling, and we make every effort, once both sides have submitted arguments, to promptly set up a panel and issue a decision.

In extraordinary circumstances, the appeals committee does have the power to set aside a suspension or punishment while an appeal is pending. The committee will only exercise this power, however, where the appellant can show that he or she would otherwise suffer “irreparable harm” and that the appeal has a high likelihood of success.

Can the legal department give me advice on how to proceed?
Since the USSF legal department is the contact for appellants and state associations, we field many calls from the parties asking any number of questions, from a simple request for confirmation that a letter has been received, to more complex questions about what certain bylaws mean or what arguments should be made.

The legal department is happy to answer any procedural questions, but cannot offer any advice on how to proceed, what arguments to make, or anything that might be construed as “legal advice.”  This rule is an important one to us.  First, because it is improper for a lawyer to be giving advice to someone that is not his or her client.  But perhaps more importantly, we do everything we can to preserve our status as the “impartial, objective” coordinator of the appeals process.  Our job is to obtain the materials from the parties and pass them on to the appeals panel, and to assist the panel in getting a decision to the parties.  We are not the decision-makers, and we want the parties to be able to contact us without concerns about whether that contact will affect the decision.

Are past appeals decisions publicly available?
It has been our past practice not to publish appeals decisions.  However, it has been suggested that making them available would be helpful to appellants.  This topic is on our agenda for the next Appeals Committee meeting, and we will provide updates if any policies change.

Questions or comments should be directed to Alison Kocoras, U.S. Soccer's General Counsel, at (312) 528-1296 or