A leading appellate attorney reviews the Illinois Supreme Court opinion handed down Friday, March 8.

M.U. v. Team Illinois Hockey Club, Inc., 2024 IL 128935

By Amelia Buragas, J.D., Illinois State University

In M.U. v. Team Illinois Hockey Club, Inc., a unanimous Court applied standard rules of statutory construction to consider the language and parameters of section 5-102(A) of the Illinois Human Rights Act. After examining the plain language of the statute and the allegations contained in the plaintiff’s complaint, the Court held that a youth hockey club that leases and operates a portion of a public ice arena is subject to section 5-102(A) of the Act and can be held liable for violations of the Act’s remedial provisions.

In 2019, the plaintiff, M.U., was a freshman in high school and signed up to play hockey with a girls’ hockey team run by Team Illinois Hockey Club, Inc. According to the allegations contained in the complaint, M.U. had a history of treatment for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. M.U.’s parents informed the team’s coach of her mental health struggles and that M.U.’s participation in team activities was supported by her mental health professionals as an important and supportive aspect of her life. The day after this conversation, the teams’ coach as well as a member of the board of directors for the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois, Inc., decided to ban M.U. from all Team Illinois activities until she was “able to participate 100%.” The coach also sent an e-mail to the families of the other players on M.U.’s team instructing them to “have no contact with M.U. in person or by phone, text, or social media.” The e-mail further explained that M.U. had been removed from any involvement or communication with the team and her teammates “until she was back to the positive, happy, smiling kid that we all know she is.”

Plaintiff, through her parents, filed a lawsuit against Team Illinois and the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois, alleging violations of section 5-102(A) of the Illinois Human Rights Act. The circuit court of DuPage County held that the defendants were not bound by section 5-102(A) and dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice for failure to state a cause of action. The appellate court reversed and remanded and the Supreme Court granted defendants’ petition for leave to appeal to consider this case of first impression regarding the language of the Act.

The Illinois Supreme Court began with the standard rules for statutory construction, explaining that its primary goal was to “ascertain and effectuate the intent of the legislature.” Here, the legislatures’ objectives were explicitly stated in section 1-102 of the Act, which stated that the goal of the legislation was to secure “freedom from discrimination” for certain individuals, including those with physical or mental disabilities and that this freedom included “the availability of public accommodations.” The Court further noted that as a remedial statute the Act must be “liberally construed” to achieve its purpose. The Court then examined the Act’s definitions of the terms “disability” and “place of accommodation” and concluded that the plain language in section 5-102(A) was clear and unambiguous. From there, the Court’s analysis proceeded down a logical path. It concluded that Team Illinois was a “person” under the statute as that term was defined to include not only individuals, but also corporations and organizations and Team Illinois fit “squarely within this definition” as both a corporation and organization. The Court also concluded that Seven Bridges was a “place of public accommodation” because it fell under a catch-all term of “other place of exercise or recreation.”

Having answered these threshold questions, the Court explained that application of section 5-102(A) to M.U.’s complaint was straightforward. M.U. alleged in her complaint that because of her disability, or because Team Illinois perceived her to have a disability, Team Illinois “segregated, isolated, and excluded” her from participating in the team’s programs, events, and activities at Seven Bridges because of her disability and, in doing so, denied her the full and equal enjoyment of the facilities and services of a place of public accommodation. Accepting these well-pleaded facts as well as the reasonable inference that could be drawn from them, the Court held that the complaint “on its face, pleads a cause of action for unlawful discrimination in the availability of public accommodations under section 5-102(A).”

The Court noted that the defendants challenged this conclusion by arguing that M.U. was not barred from the entire facility, only those portions of Seven Bridges used by Team Illinois. Defendants argued that after M.U. was barred from Team Illinois activities, she could still enter Seven Bridges to watch games, take skating lessons, eat at the restaurant, or skate during free skate. The Court was unpersuaded by this argument, noting that the Act did not differentiate between “portions” of a place of public accommodation that are subject to the Act and “portions” that are not. The Court also found support for this conclusion in federal caselaw interpreting Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which contains similar language to that found in section 5-102(A). The Court also declined to consider defendants’ request for clarification of the “private club” exception contained in section 103(A) of the Act, noting that defendants did not argue that Seven Bridges was a private club; thus, any guidance provided by the Court would be an advisory opinion and outside the jurisdiction of the Court.

The unanimous opinion was written by Justice Cunningham. Continuing recent practice, the Court also granted leave for the filing of amicus briefs from a variety of groups in support of both parties. Organizations that filed amicus briefs included the Illinois Attorney General, USA Hockey, Inc., The Thomas More Society, and a joint group of organizations that included Equip for Equality, Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, the Center for Disability & Elder Law, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago, Legal Council for Health Justice (IL), Equality Illinois, the Shriver Center on Poverty, and Legal Aid Chicago.