By T. D. Thornton
A federal judge on Friday dismissed Bob Baffert's lawsuit against the New York Racing Association (NYRA) that had alleged the Hall of Fame trainer was injured by NYRA's initial attempt to bar him back in May and again in September when it summoned him to a hearing to adjudicate his “detrimental” conduct related to repeated equine drug positives.
Chief among the reasons that United States District Court (Eastern District of New York) Carol Bagley Amon dismissed the amended complaint were that some of Baffert's claims were not yet “ripe” for a federal court to rule upon them because Baffert has yet to have the NYRA exclusionary hearing that is scheduled to begin Monday, Jan. 24.
Amon also wrote that Baffert could not substantiate his claim that NYRA's actions against him amounted to wrongful interference with his business relationships–such as owners who might have moved horses out of his care–because NYRA's actions were directed at Baffert, and not his clients.
“Baffert fails to explain how a state actor's truthful claims reporting a suspension are criminal or independently tortious,” Amon wrote. “Even though the underlying suspension was allegedly unlawfully undertaken, NYRA's statements about that suspension were entirely accurate and do not constitute a crime or tort.”
Asked via email to comment on the Jan. 21 court order on his client's behalf, Baffert's attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, wrote the following:
“The primary purpose of the federal court action was to obtain an injunction prohibiting NYRA [from] suspending Mr. Baffert without due process of law. We were successful in that regard and Judge Amon issued such an injunction [back in July that preliminarily lifted his suspension]–which she has now made permanent.
“As it pertains to our claims related to the renewed efforts by NYRA to suspend Mr. Baffert, Judge Amon has instructed us that we need to go through that [Jan. 24 hearing] process to see if NYRA actually affords the due process it is legally obligated to provide.”
“While we are skeptical NYRA will do as required given its past conduct, we will go through the hearing as instructed by the Judge. Should NYRA not act fairly and in accordance with the law, we will have the right–and we will be prepared–to once again return to Court to seek justice,” Robertson concluded.
Patrick McKenna, NYRA's vice president of communications, countered with the following emailed statement:
“NYRA is gratified by Judge Amon's decision to dismiss Mr. Baffert's lawsuit in its entirety. As we have said throughout this process, NYRA's focus in this matter is protecting the integrity of the sport of Thoroughbred racing in New York. In furtherance of that goal, the NYRA administrative hearing will begin on Monday morning.”
NYRA had banished the seven-time GI Kentucky Derby-winning trainer 16 days after now-deceased Medina Spirit tested positive for an overage of betamethasone while winning the May 1, 2021, Derby. In the 12 months prior to Medina Spirit's positive, four other Baffert trainees also tested positive for medication overages, two of them in Grade I stakes.
On July 14, the court granted Baffert a preliminary injunction that allowed him to race at New York's premier tracks until his lawsuit got adjudicated in full.
In the wake of that decision, NYRA drafted a new set of procedures for holding hearings and issuing determinations designed to suspend licensees who engage in injurious conduct. On Sept. 10, NYRA then summoned Baffert to appear at an exclusion hearing now scheduled for Jan. 24.
Baffert first filed a motion asking the judge to hold NYRA in civil contempt for trying to schedule such a hearing and to stay the hearing itself. When those requests were denied, he amended his original complaint to try and keep the hearing process from moving forward.
That amended complaint was the subject of Amon's order on Friday.
By changing the injunction over Baffert's initial May suspension from “preliminary” to “permanent,” Amon wrote that the civil rights aspect of Baffert's initial complaint is now “fully resolved.”
That left five counts in the amended complaint to be adjudicated. Amon sided with NYRA by dismissing all of them.
NYRA had argued that one of the counts should have been dismissed related to a legal term called the “Younger abstention,” which is a doctrine that mandates federal courts must not hear cases involving federal issues already being decided at the state level.
“Younger abstention is appropriate here,” Amon wrote, noting that NYRA's upcoming administrative proceeding qualifies as a “civil enforcement” proceeding.”
“A Younger-eligible civil enforcement proceeding can be a proceeding or hearing in front of an agency or committee tribunal; it does not need to take place in state court…” Amon wrote.
“NYRA's administrative proceedings resemble criminal prosecutions in the important respects identified in [a precedent],” Amon wrote. “First, the purpose of the proceeding is to determine if Baffert should be sanctioned for alleged wrongdoing…”
“Second, NYRA initiated the proceedings as a state actor. Baffert argues that NYRA cannot call itself a state adjudicative body because it has previously argued that it is not a state actor. Notably, Baffert does not argue that NYRA is not a state actor, since any such argument would be fatal to his [civil rights] claim…”
“Third, NYRA's proceeding was preceded by an investigation that culminated in the filing of formal charges,” Amon wrote. “Baffert does not dispute that the Statement of Charges qualifies as formal charges. Instead, he argues that NYRA failed to conduct a satisfactory, independent investigation before bringing those charges. That argument is not persuasive.”
As for the “ripeness” issue, Amon wrote: “Courts considering prudential ripeness ask first 'whether an issue is fit for judicial decision' and second 'whether and to what extent the parties will endure hardship if decision is withheld.'
“Baffert alleges that proceeding with the hearing violates his due process rights. And as in [a precedent] it is not yet clear that the hearing will deprive Baffert of any property interest. Although Baffert argues that NYRA has targeted Baffert for disparate treatment and that the hearing presents a 'fait accompli' of suspension, the September 10th Letter does not suspend Baffert. Whether NYRA is a biased agency and whether suspension is a 'fait accompli' will certainly be clearer after the hearing has run its course and NYRA has decided whether to suspend Baffert.
Amon also wrote that Baffert did not successfully argue that dismissing his case would cause him significant harm.
“If having to participate in an ongoing administrative hearing counted as per se hardship, courts would routinely find claims ripe while administrative hearings are ongoing,” Amon wrote.
Baffert had argued that even the specter that he might be suspended from racing in New York had caused his business “significant injury.”
But Amon wrote that his amended complaint “does not include allegations that the [letter summoning him to a hearing] has injured his business.”
Amon added that, “Baffert alleges that one client [WinStar Farm] moved its horses because of the May suspension, and that other owners 'have indicated that they may have to move their horses away from Baffert if he cannot race in New York.'
“These allegations do not indicate that Baffert will suffer any business injury from the ongoing hearing now that his original suspension has been lifted. And Baffert has provided no
other evidence indicating an injury accruing from the specter of suspension,” Amon wrote.
Amon wrote that courts can't be expected to be constantly reviewing whether or not the “cloud of official investigation” harms someone's business, because reviewing every such claim of harm would disrupt the administrative process and add to “already overcrowded court dockets.”