Monday, June 9, 2003
Court Overturns Ruling That Racing Board Violated Horse Trainer’s Due Process Rights in Doping Case
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An injunction barring the California Horse Racing Board from suspending a veteran trainer whose horse tested positive for trace amounts of morphine was overturned Friday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
U.S. District Judge Dickran M. Tevrizian of the Central District of California should have dismissed Bob Baffert’s suit under the abstention doctrine, Judge Susan Graber wrote for the panel.
The ruling means that absent a stay by the board, which was previously denied, Baffert will have to serve a 60-day suspension resulting from a drug test on Nautical Look, winner of the seventh race at Hollywood Park on May 3, 2000. He also loses an award of more than $100,000 in attorney fees and costs.
Under state regulations, all winning horses are drug-tested following their races.
A blood and urine sample is taken; one-half of each sample is sent to a laboratory and the other half—the so-called split sample—is retained by the board. If the laboratory reports a positive result, the split sample is tested as well, and if that result is also positive, the horse’s trainer is subject to discipline following a hearing before the track stewards.
The rule is strict—positive test results are prima facie evidence that the trainer is guilty of a violation even if he was not present at the time and had no actual knowledge the horse had ingested a prohibited substance. Baffert was working in Kentucky the day of Nautical Look’s victory.
Baffert and his lawyer, Neil Papiano, contended that given the small amount of morphine, it probably came from a small amount of poppy seed that had gotten into the horse’s feed. But the stewards invoked another strict provision of the regulations, declaring that environmental contamination is not a defense to a doping charge unless the trainer proves her or she took reasonable steps to prevent it.
After losing before the stewards, Baffert and Papiano filed an administrative appeal. But they also brought a 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 suit, claiming the board had denied them due process by destroying blood samples—the suspension was based solely on the urine samples.
The board defended its actions, noting that the laboratory destroys one-third of all samples received, as a matter of policy. The board did not retain the split blood sample, it said, because those samples are destroyed after 45 days if testing is not requested.
It also argued that the District Court should not have interfered in an ongoing state administrative proceeding, citing Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and that it was immune under the Eleventh Amendment, an issue the Court of Appeals did not reach.
Under Younger, Graber explained, a federal court is generally barred from hearing a suit if it implicates important state interests and raises issues that are the subject of ongoing state agency proceedings. While there are some exceptions, the judge said, none of them fit Baffert’s situation.
The district court, she explained, need not abstain if the complaint raises issues of federal law that cannot be addressed in the state proceedings. But the fact that the state’s procedures are cumbersome or time-consuming is not enough, she said.
Baffert failed to show that the CHRB would not hear his due process argument, Graber said, or that the administrative appeals process is so lengthy that it would act as a procedural bar to his claims.
“Notably, the proceedings affording judicial review of the Board’s decision are not peculiar to that administrative body,” the judge wrote. “To the contrary, Plaintiff’s challenge amounts to an attack on California’s administrative review procedures as a whole.”
The Ninth Circuit, the judge noted, has upheld the state’s adjudicative procedures in the context of physician licensing. Baffert, she noted, can pursue his constitutional arguments both in an administrative appeal and in a writ proceeding in the courts, either one of which would be a sufficient remedy to forestall application of a Younger exception, she suggested.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company