Baffert Wins Attorneys' Fees from NYRA

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Bob Baffert | Horsephotos

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A federal judge has ordered that the New York Racing Association (NYRA) must pay trainer Bob Baffert $109,124 in legal expenses. Those fees and costs were incurred in the early stages of the trainer's civil rights lawsuit against NYRA, and the court has determined that legal precedents qualified him as the “prevailing party” five months ago when he obtained a preliminary injunction to overcome NYRA's banishment of him from Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct.

That figure represents only a partial award. The Hall-of-Fame trainer had been seeking $162,086.

NYRA had argued that he wasn't entitled to any money based on the fact that the overall case has not been fully adjudicated.

But Judge Carol Bagley Amon of United States District Court (Eastern District of New York) wrote in a Dec. 15 order that Baffert does indeed qualify for some reimbursement, quoting from relevant precedents in her ruling.

“First, the preliminary injunction was decided on the merits of Baffert's claims. Over 10 pages of [my] 27-page preliminary injunction opinion were dedicated to finding that 'Baffert has established a likelihood of proving that NYRA's suspension constituted state action, and that the process by which it suspended him violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution…'

“Accordingly, the preliminary injunction was 'governed by [an] assessment of the merits' as required by [precedent]. Second, the preliminary injunction was against a state actor that later changed its procedures, mooting the question. Rather than appeal the preliminary injunction, NYRA changed its suspension procedures such that trainers can no longer be suspended without a pre-suspension hearing….

“Therefore, because Baffert 'neutralized and then caused to be superseded a [state action he] persuasively argued was unconstitutional' and because 'the preliminary injunction [he] secured was never reversed, dissolved, or otherwise undone,' Baffert has, 'unavoidably, prevailed.'”

Amon continued: “At oral argument, Baffert also agreed not to seek damages on his [civil action] claim related to the May 2021 suspension should I grant him attorneys' fees. With this concession, the portion of this case related to the subject matter of the preliminary injunction is complete. That there will be no additional litigation on this topic belies NYRA's worry that there will be serial attorneys' fee litigation regarding the subject matter of the preliminary injunction. Accordingly, I find that attorneys' fees on the preliminary injunction are appropriate at this time.”

NYRA, when it filed a Sept. 27 motion opposing Baffert's expenses, said such an award would be unjust because NYRA's suspension itself was aimed at just ends.

But Amon dismissed that argument: “Following this logic would deny civil rights plaintiffs attorneys' fees in a majority of Section 1983 [civil rights] cases. Section 1983 claims are necessarily brought against state actors, and a state actor will undoubtedly argue that the ends of its policies are in the public's interest,” she wrote.

“And where the state actor has lost on the merits of the Section 1983 claim–in other words, where the court has ruled that the means of its policies were unjust–it would denigrate a plaintiff's constitutional rights to disallow attorneys' fees so that the ends can justify the means.”

NYRA had barred Baffert back on May 17, a bit more than two weeks after the now-deceased Medina Spirit won the GI Kentucky Derby while testing positive for an overage of betamethasone. In the 12 months prior to that positive, four other Baffert trainees had also tested positive for medication overages, two of them in Grade I stakes.

Baffert responded to NYRA's ruling-off by filing a June 14 civil complaint alleging that the ban violated his constitutional right to due process.

On July 14, the eve of the Saratoga season, the court granted Baffert a preliminary injunction that allowed him to race at New York's premier tracks until the lawsuit was adjudicated in full.

On Aug. 25, Baffert petitioned the court to get NYRA to pay for the legal costs he had incurred to that point.

Some of the attorneys who argued Baffert's case billed the seven-time Derby-winning trainer between $450 and $975 hourly. His total $162,086 request covered fees and expenses for six attorneys and two paralegals who performed work on his case.

NYRA had argued that many of the hours billed were duplicative, caused by the overlapping of multiple attorneys from different firms.

Judges have discretion to adjust such expense requests upward or downward based on prevailing rates and the nature of the case. Amon ended up paring down the amount she ordered NYRA to pay by roughly one-third.

She wrote that “the case was high-profile and offered reputational benefits for Baffert's attorneys, especially those attorneys who market themselves as equine law experts.”

The order also stated that “Baffert is correct that the litigation was hotly contested and included quick turnaround of substantial briefing in a high-pressure situation. Moreover, Baffert's attorneys handled the case well, achieving victory on the preliminary injunction with well-argued briefs. Taken together with the previously mentioned case-specific factors, these factors counsel a reasonable rate in the middle of the range.”

But, Amon added, she is not bound to award the actual rates billed by the attorneys that Baffert agreed to pay.

“Baffert's decision to pay a premium to guarantee the attorneys of his choice is relevant, but it does not overwhelm the overall inquiry: what is the 'minimum (rate) necessary to litigate the case effectively?'” the order stated.

The lawyer who billed Baffert the most was the New York-based Charles Michael, who wrote in his declaration that “my $975 hourly rate is within the reasonable rate customarily charged by attorneys with comparable experience.”

Baffert's two next-highest priced attorneys both have long-term expertise in horse racing-related litigation, and they have represented multiple trainer clients in recent high-profile cases across the nation: The Kentucky-based W. Craig Robertson, the lead counsel in the case, charged Baffert $475 hourly for his work. The Oklahoma-based Clark Brewster billed $450 hourly.

The judge ruled that Michael's fee is “far in excess of the high end of the prevailing-rate range for partners in Eastern District civil rights litigation…. Michael has less experience than Robertson and does not have a longstanding relationship with Baffert. Therefore, he merits a slightly lower rate. Accordingly, I find that a rate of $450 per hour is reasonable,” for NYRA to pay.

Robertson's and Brewster's rates were both deemed “reasonable” by Amon.

The judge made further reductions to what NYRA has to pay based on billable hours she said were duplicative. But, she added, “I am unable to determine whether [Brewster's firm] performed duplicative work because its bills are overly vague…. Rarely do Brewster's [billing] descriptions exceed five words.”

To compensate for Brewster's vagueness and “the possibility of duplication obfuscated by those vague entries, I will apply an across-the-board reduction of 33% for the hours claimed by [Brewster's firm],” Amon wrote.

When asked to comment Wednesday on the ruling that it must pay Baffert's partially claimed expenses, a NYRA spokesperson replied with a statement that did not directly address the $109,124 court order.

“NYRA remains focused on protecting the integrity of the sport of Thoroughbred racing in New York and ensuring it is conducted safely,” wrote Patrick McKenna, NYRA's senior director of communications. “To that end, NYRA will conduct an independent hearing beginning on Jan. 24 to determine whether Mr. Baffert has engaged in conduct that is detrimental to the best interests of the sport or potentially injurious to the safety of horses and riders.”

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