By Dan Ross
Sidelined California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) equine medical director Jeff Blea has filed a writ of mandate with the California Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles seeking to lift the California Veterinary Medical Board's interim suspension on his veterinary license.
The court filing, dated Feb. 24, also seeks declarative and injunctive relief, arguing that the position of equine medical director does not require an active license, and that Blea, UC Davis and the CHRB will continue to suffer “irreparable harm” if California horse racing's head veterinarian remains unable to fulfill his duties.
UC Davis placed Blea on administrative leave from his role as equine medical director in January. That position is first appointed by the dean of UC Davis, which then contracts with the CHRB for the appointee's services.
In the interim, UC Davis has used “school personnel” to fulfill the duties of the equine medical director for the CHRB.
Monday, Blea also set the ball officially rolling towards a formal hearing on the veterinary board's accusations against him, filing a notice of defense.
In the meantime, Blea will also likely seek to stay the interim suspension of his veterinary license until the Superior Court can officially hear the matter, explained his attorney, George Wallace.
Another purpose of the stay would be to potentially delay the formal hearing on the accusations against Blea so that the veterinary board receives guidance from the Superior Court “on what the law is,” said Wallace.
At the start of the year, the veterinary board announced that an emergency hearing had resulted in an interim suspension of Blea's veterinary license for a number of alleged offenses, including purportedly administering medications to racehorses without a prior examination, without forming a diagnosis and without medical necessity.
The veterinary board also claimed that Blea presents a “danger to public health, safety and welfare,” due to his oversight as equine medical director of the high-profile investigation into the death of the Bob Baffert-trained Medina Spirit (Protonico), the Kentucky Derby winner who collapsed and died after a scheduled workout Dec. 6 at Santa Anita.
The necropsy and postmortem review of Medina Spirit's death is now complete, with the cause of death undetermined. John Pascoe, the executive associate dean of UC Davis's School of Veterinary Medicine, ultimately oversaw the necropsy examination.
According to various leading veterinary medical experts, the veterinary board's accusations levelled against Blea—including amended accusations from earlier this month—consist largely of lax record keeping.
Veterinary experts also suggest that the veterinary board's investigation potentially failed to account for the unusual nature of veterinary practice on the backstretch, where veterinarians–even those with multiple barns under their care–can build the sort of daily relationship with their animals absent from traditional small animal practice.
In his filing with the Superior Court, Blea argues that the interim suspension of his veterinary license is invalid for several reasons, including how the administrative law judge who issued the suspension used a “preponderance of evidence” to support her decision, instead of the legally required higher standard based on “clear and convincing proof to a reasonable certainty.”
The judge's findings “are not supported by the weight of the evidence, or by any substantial evidence, or at all,” the filing states.
Furthermore, even though Blea retired from medical practice in June of last year–to assume the role of equine medical director–there is “no substantial evidence” to suggest that even if he were still practicing, he poses a “danger” to anyone, the filing states.
“The Accusation is devoid of any assertion, or suggestion, that any equine patient of Dr. Blea was harmed in any way, or that any of Dr. Blea's clients (the owners and trainers of those horses, the “consumers” of veterinary services whose interests are to be protected by the Veterinary Medical Board) have the slightest complaint about his professional practices in the care of those patients,” the filing adds.
The veterinary board has also argued that the statutory definition of the equine medical director position means that Blea is actively engaging in veterinary medicine by conducting his duties.
In his Superior Court filing, Blea takes issue with that assessment, arguing that the veterinary board's reading of the state's Business and Professions Code is “overbroad and unreasonable,” and is incorrect “as a matter of law.”
The CHRB has thrown its weight behind Blea. Earlier this month, senior CHRB officials said that the agency was contemplating a similar legal intervention in the Superior Court on Blea's behalf.
Monday, CHRB executive director, Scott Chaney, explained the agency is still in the process of finalizing that strategy.
The TDN also asked UC Davis if Blea would resume his equine medical director duties if California Superior Court grants a stay on his interim suspension. UC Davis has yet to respond.